A Sanders Visit to New Hampshire Set Off Alarms He’d Primary Obama

His appearance at a local Democratic fundraiser in 2011 was the kind of move a potential presidential candidate would make to test the waters.

Bernie Sanders in 2011. In an email from 2011 shared with The Atlantic, New Hampshire activists expressed concerns with Sanders's participation in a local Democratic fundraiser. (Karen Bleier / AFP via Getty)

Bernie Sanders has insisted he was not on the verge of a primary run against Barack Obama during the summer of 2011—but that would have been news to activists in New Hampshire at the time, who were watching his schedule in the first primary state and listening to his speeches criticizing the president then running for reelection.

Sanders’s public comments entertaining the idea of a primary challenge to Obama had already put people at the reelection-campaign headquarters, in Chicago, on edge. The Vermont senator had been arguing that a progressive challenge to the president could serve a similar function as the Tea Party had during the 2010 midterm elections, moving the party away from the center.

But then, on August 6, 2011, the chair of the Merrimack County Democrats, Eric Tolbert Kilchenstein, sent an email to the reelection campaign. Kilchenstein was asking for advice. The county party was having its annual barbecue fundraiser on August 21, and he’d learned that one of its board members had spoken with Sanders and arranged for the senator to attend. Kilchenstein thought that was odd, because although Sanders had been a Vermont politician for decades, he was not a regular speaker at local political events in New Hampshire. The senator seemed like he could be a good draw for the event, Kilchenstein told the Obama aides. But two days later, Kilchenstein saw Sanders’s comments talking up the primary challenge, and Merrimack County Democrats’ backs went up. Kilchenstein was looking for an out, he told the reelection campaign staff, or at least for someone from the Obama campaign to come as a surrogate to counter Sanders.

“I remember we were scrambling for a speaker—and I didn’t make an ask to Senator Sanders, but somehow his people got wind that we were looking for a speaker, and they came to us and offered to speak,” Kilchenstein, who’s no longer the county chair but backed Senator Michael Bennet in the state’s primary this year, told me. “It struck me that he came down to this group three hours away from Burlington to speak to us, and secondly, he gave a very animated and rousing speech, which was beyond the norm for your usual county-barbecue speeches.”

“It seemed like he had an objective,” Kilchenstein said. “He wasn’t there as a courtesy as much as he showed up with a message.”

According to other internal emails among Obama’s reelection-campaign staffers, they’d already caught notice, on August 2, of Sanders coming to the event. “Check out the special guest,” one wrote, noting Sanders. Half an hour later came a reply from another aide: “The Cheshire County Democrats are in the process of lining him up too.” That was for a spaghetti-dinner fundraiser a few weeks later. Attending these sorts of events is one thing that potential candidates for president do to test the waters, get their names out there, and try out their stump speeches.

“When I spoke to folks in New Hampshire, this was very much a real threat. We looked out for news of his movements in the state,” said one mid-level Obama reelection aide who was in touch with New Hampshire activists, and asked for anonymity to discuss the internal conversations. “Remember, it was a weak moment in the reelection campaign. No politician accidentally goes to New Hampshire or Iowa—and folks in New Hampshire know that.”

The Obama campaign didn’t send someone in the end. But it did start hiring and deploying staff specifically to reassure activists on the ground who were getting nervous—and to gather information about the moves Sanders was making, several Obama aides said.

Since my story last week detailing that top Obama campaign officials had to ask then–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to speak to Sanders—twice—to stop him from getting into a primary race against Obama, Sanders and his aides have repeatedly denied that he was interested in running. “I did not give any consideration to running for president of the United States until 2015,” Sanders said in a CNN town hall on Monday night, responding to the article. Obama’s 2012 campaign manager, Jim Messina, and top adviser David Plouffe confirmed the story on the record. Sanders said that people could ask Reid or fellow Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, and that they’d deny that Sanders had talked about running. But I did ask Reid and Leahy about this last week in reporting the story, and neither of them denied it. (Reid eventually issued a deliberately cryptic statement not commenting on the conversations but saying he was glad there was no primary challenge. Leahy’s spokesperson didn’t comment at all.) Sanders last Thursday called Obama an “icon” in an interview with CNN, but has not explained what changed over the nine years from that summer of 2011, when he spoke of “deep disappointment” with Obama in an interview on a progressive radio show.

Multiple Sanders aides, including top adviser Jeff Weaver and deputy campaign manager Ari Rabin-Havt, declined to comment on the record for this story.

But Obama aides who lived through that moment are still angry about it—and frustrated that Sanders is telling a different story now.

“He’s done a nice job of pretending this was just a conversation in the Senate,” says Patrick Dillon, another Obama reelection aide, who was dispatched to New Hampshire as concerns mounted back at headquarters. “There was actually stuff on the ground. This wasn’t a figment of our imagination.”

“Fact is he was doing stuff a candidate playing with a primary challenge would do; and had to know what it looked like (and to whom),” Dillon added in a tweet. “People in NH sure knew what it looked like, and sometimes what it looks like and what you’re really doing is a distinction without a difference.”

When Sanders arrived at the barbecue on August 21, he ripped into Obama.

He railed against the budget “grand bargain” that Obama had been pushing for, which would have led to significant cuts to government entitlement programs. “Do you know what that means? You know what that means? Social Security is on the table. Medicare is on the table. Medicaid is on the table,” the Concord Monitor quoted Sanders as saying. “I am not happy, nor should you be happy, that President Obama is willing to negotiate on those programs.” He went on to criticize Obama for moving away from the position he’d taken against Social Security cuts in 2008, in his race against John McCain.

The proto–stump speech seems to have worked. The Concord Monitor article begins by quoting an attendee who said, “He should be president.” The article clarified by identifying the speaker as “Sanders, an independent who has announced no plans to run for president.”

In March 2012, seven months after the conversations to get Sanders to back off his talk of challenging Obama, Sanders spoke up in favor of the president’s reelection at a rally at the University of Vermont. He rattled off the progressive agenda he and others had been pushing in Vermont and said that he hoped Obama would pay attention, then spoke up against Social Security and Medicare cuts. He acknowledged that Obama had come to the campus to campaign for him in 2006, when he was first running for Senate. “I will forever be grateful for his support,” Sanders said. “We are all together going to do everything we can to reelect Barack Obama as president of the United States.” By then, though, the New Hampshire primary was long in the past.