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.