OCEANSIDE, Calif.—Sen. Bernie Sanders (I. Vt.), in a trip to this purple coastal battleground district, labeled Democratic candidate Mike Levin a "strong, progressive Democrat" who is dedicated to helping him pass liberal priorities in Washington such as single-payer healthcare, Medicare for all, free college tuition for all and a $15 federal minimum wage.
"I'm here because Mike is a strong, progressive Democrat," Sanders said Friday night to a cheering crowd of 1,500 supporters at MiraCosta Community College in Northern San Diego County. "Mike understands that we need an economy and a government which works for all of us—not just the 1 percent."
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Sanders invoked the name of his 2016 spinoff, Our Revolution, by opening his remarks by observing that Oceanside, a heavily Democratic pocket of the district, looks like it's "ready for a political revolution."
Despite the enthusiasm, Sanders predicted that battle for control of the House majority would be close, and that turnout in the beachside community in the 49th District could determine "the difference between victory and defeat."
Levin, an environmental lawyer, is running against Republican Diane Harkey, a former state legislator and member of California's tax board, in a district outgoing Rep. Darrell Issa (R., Calif.) won by just 1,600 votes in 2016. Recent polls show Levin running at least 10 points ahead in a race that top GOP groups have decided not to invest in.
The district, which spans south Orange County and northern San Diego County, went for Hillary Clinton by 7 percentage points in 2016. The GOP held a 7-point edge in voter registrations that year, but Democratic groups have been working to erase it. It's one of the seven races in California Democrats are targeting in their attempts to win back the House majority.
The independent Vermont senator, whose presidential campaign caught fire three years ago and challenged Hillary Clinton's claim on the Democratic nomination, praised California for embracing the progressive agenda his championed in 2016 and for resisting President Trump, who he called "a pathological liar."
Even though Kevin de Leon, who is challenging Sen. Diane Feinstein (D., Calif.) from the left, addressed the crowd just minutes before Sanders took the stage, Levin was the only candidate Sanders mentioned in his remarks.
"Brothers and sisters, a week from Tuesday will be the most important midterm election, perhaps in the history of our country, and that election will determine whether or not Donald Trump continues to do his things unchecked by either the House or Senate," he said. "We cannot allow that to happen. Please, in the next week, do everything you can do to bring your friends to vote."
Sanders told a story about his recent trip to Iowa in which a single mom told him that she worked for seven years for $7 an hour minimum wage. He recalled how, during a campaign stop in Colorado recently, he learned that several school districts in the state had instituted a four-day, instead of five-day week because "the state and feds haven't provided the kind of revenue they need."
Earlier that day at MiraCosta College, he said he discovered they have a food pantry because "there are students here who are worried about where they are going to get their next meal" and where young people do not have "permanent housing."
"Brothers and sisters, we are not a struggling third-world country," he said. "This is the United States of America and we are not going to give a trillion dollars in tax breaks to the 1 percent and create a situation where students don't have adequate housing or food security."
Sanders then pledged that "Mike is going to go to Washington with me, and he is going to take on the greed of multinational corporations and Wall Street, and he is going to fight to return the government to the people and not just wealthy campaign contributors."
Recalling the success of his 2016 campaign, he argued that voters have thought about the "dysfunctionality" of the country's healthcare system and now support the idea that healthcare for all is a right.
"They began to ask themselves whether or not healthcare is a right, and they concluded that we must go forward with a Medicare-for-all, single-payer program," he asserted.
Sanders, who has introduced a Medicare-for-all bill, cited an August Reuters-Ipsos poll that found that 70 percent of Americans—85 percent of Democrats and 52 percent of Republicans support Medicare for all. He did not mention a recent study showing that it would costs $32.6 trillion increase in federal spending or that even doubling taxes in the country would not be able to cover those costs.
The contest for control of the 49th district is the sixth most expensive in the state, with all of outside groups spending close to $3.5 million to boost Levin's candidacy and "not a penny" going to support Republican Diane Harkey in the general election, Politico reported earlier this week.
The Democratic House Majority PAC, which is closely aligned with Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and other Democratic House leaders, has blanketed the district with negative direct mail taking Harkey to task for personal wealth and her husband's failed real estate deal, as well as her support for repealing Obamacare.
In his biggest applause line of the night, Sanders also highlighted the repeated clashes between Trump and California politicians over the past year and a half.
"I know Trump did not do well in California—congratulations, California. I notice he does not come back here to say hello very often. He doesn't like California, which says a lot about the state of California. I believe the feelings are mutual."
Sanders blasted Trump for pledging during his presidential campaign to provide healthcare for everybody.
"But when he became president, he led an effort to throw 32 million Americans off the healthcare they had. How disgraceful is that?" he asked.
He also hit Trump for failing to take on the pharmaceutical industry, as promised, and for reneging on his promise not to cut Medicare and Social Security.
"He lied," Sanders said. "His last budget called for a trillion-dollar cut to Medicaid, and $500 million to Medicare and $72 million to the Social Security disability fund."
Levin, who spoke right before Sanders, used broader strokes in his address to the crowd. He read from prepared remarks, arguing that the race would be won or lost depending on turnout from votes between the ages of 18 and 35. He noted that most of those voters stayed home on Election Day 2016 and "the result was Donald Trump."
Levin brought up the divisive partisan firestorm over Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court even though other Democrats have recently complained of a "Kavanaugh effect" that is motivating more Republicans to vote in the midterms.
Along with Trump, the result of the 2016 election he said, was the white nationalists march in Charlottesville, the United States leaving the Paris climate agreement, and "tax cut designed to benefit the wealthiest one percent of Americans."
"And Justice Neil Gorsuch and Justice Brett Kavanaugh," he said.
Levin painted a bleak portrait for students and other young people that if Republicans stay in charge, "your healthcare gets taken away and your student loans become more impossible to pay off. You feel more unseen, more unheard. Your faith in your country dims."
"I'd like to offer you a different future. In this one, you take the time to vote and you get your friends to vote, and we flip the House," he said. "Suddenly government is fighting to protect your healthcare and your environment. Government is valuing your education and helping you to manage those onerous student loans."
The crowd's response to Levin was far more tepid and polite than the cheering standing ovations they gave to Sanders.
While Sanders was speaking, members of the audience, many wearing hats and t-shirts with the word "Bern" emblazoned on them, stood on their feet cheering, took selfies with their cell phones, and waved flags promoting single-payer healthcare. One repeatedly held up Sanders' book, "Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In."
Sanders has a mixed record in translating his continued popularity within the party's left wing to candidates running for office. Most notably, he helped push liberal Democrat Andrew Gillum over the finish line in an upset primary win in August in the governor's race.
In other states and districts, his endorsements and appearances have not translated into victories at the polls for the candidates he backed. Sanders, who has spent the last several weeks of the midterm campaigns traveling to eight states will end his California campaign swing in the liberal stronghold of Berkeley where he will appear alongside Rep. Barbara Lee (D., Calif.).
Lee, an outspoken advocate for impeaching Trump, announced in July that she would run for Democratic caucus chair, one of the top House Democratic leadership positions.