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Can Bernie Sanders sell Democrats’ $3.5T budget to Trump voters? Here’s how he tried in Indiana.

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With a camo Trump hat on his head and a sweating glass of Four Roses bourbon in his hand, Randy Conkright offered up a surprise on Friday afternoon to his regular Republican drinking buddies on the patio at the American Legion post: He had signed up to hear Sen. Bernie Sanders speak that night.

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“I’m an American, and if I wanna go, I can go,” Conkright explained, while enduring some light ribbing from his friends. “I’m not going to heckle. I want to hear what he has to say, straight from the horse’s mouth.”

As a working-class Republican dismayed with Washington, Conkright is exactly the type of voter Sanders proclaimed he wanted to reach by visiting deep-red Indiana to pitch the Democrats’ massive $3.5 trillion budget plan filled with new social programs that promise to improve the lives of ordinary Americans.

Sanders, however, offered a message that was typically combative toward Republicans and seemingly did little to appeal to those who didn’t already back his progressive agenda. Despite the trip’s stated mission of infiltrating “Republican strongholds,” Sanders held his town hall in the reliably liberal college town of West Lafayette.

Conkright found himself shaking his head through much of Sanders’ speech, surrounded by a sea of Purdue University students and clusters of professors and retirees, many of them wearing Bernie gear. The closest the 57-year-old Purdue maintenance worker and Army National Guard veteran came to applauding was wiping the sweat from his hands with a red bandanna.

“Bernie really didn’t say anything that changed my mind or how I feel,” Conkright said afterward. “He just confirmed everything I thought in his own way.”

Conkright’s experience accentuates the challenge Sanders faces in his bid to gain new support for Democrats’ agenda from disaffected white voters who backed Trump: Even if he can get some to listen, it remains a tall task to pull them across the nation’s deep political divide. Making that all the more challenging at the moment is President Joe Biden’s chaotic military withdrawal from Afghanistan, which has drawn sharp criticism from Republicans.

In many cases, the best Sanders can hope for is that some Republicans like a few of the individual policies enough to drive up poll numbers, allowing Democrats to argue — as they did with COVID relief money — that some Republicans and independents support their ideas, even if none of them vote on Capitol Hill.

Republicans, meanwhile, have been practically giddy with the prospect of the democratic socialist Sanders emerging as the face of Democrats’ fiscal policy. Republican Indiana Sen. Mike Braun attended a competing rally earlier in the day, complete with a large pink pig float branded with the words “Pull the pork.”

Braun called Sanders’ budget proposal a “radical inflation bomb” and a “$3.5 trillion socialist wish list” based on “out of control spending and tax hikes on hardworking Americans.”

At his town hall, Sanders emphasized that Democrats would raise taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans while assuring no family making less than $400,000 per year would see a tax increase. What Sanders left unsaid: Half of the $3.5 trillion budget blueprint is likely to be funded with debt.

“My Republican colleagues are busy telling everybody, ‘Bernie Sanders and Democrats are going to raise taxes.’ You’re right!” Sanders said to loud cheers. “We’re gonna raise them on the richest people in this country so they start paying their fair share.”

A Democratic oasis

Sanders drew an overflow crowd of 2,300 to the Tippecanoe County Amphitheater Park on a day when the heat index soared to 99 degrees. Sweating through a blue-collared shirt, the soon-to-be-80-year-old senator ticked through the various components of the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package: expanded Medicare to cover dental, hearing and vision, long-term in-home health care for seniors, free universal pre-K, free community college, lower prescription drug prices, more affordable housing and a transformed energy system that is less reliant on fossil fuels, among other provisions.

At some points, Sanders emphasized the plan did not go as far as he hoped — it doesn’t eliminate all student debt or meet his ultimate goal of a single-payer universal health care system.

“I’m not here to tell you this bill does everything. It does not,” Sanders said. “What we can say is that never in our lifetime has there been a piece of legislation which goes as far as this does in addressing the long-neglected problems facing the working class and middle class of this country.”

Sanders predicted Democrats would pass the bill using reconciliation, a budget-related maneuver that allows lawmakers to circumvent the filibuster in the Senate with a simple majority instead of 60 votes. That would allow Democrats to pass the legislation without any Republican support.

Braun called the process an “unfair” one he would vote against on principle, while Sanders seemed to relish taking the fight to the GOP on its turf.

“All of these Republicans who today are not prepared to stand for the working families of this country, just a few years ago voted virtually unanimously for massive tax breaks for billionaires and the wealthiest families in America,” Sanders said, drawing a chorus of boos.

Absent from the two-hour event was any overt appeal from Sanders to those who may not have supported his movement previously or an effort to engage his supporters in how they might reach out to Republicans and independents to build support for the ambitious slate of new programs — the stated purpose of his trip.

The same largely held true during a Sunday visit to Cedar Rapids, Iowa, but Sanders did speak more forcefully to the distrust many disaffected voters have in their government. He said that above all else, the budget legislation is about “making people understand that government can in fact work for working families and not just the wealthy and powerful.”

“It’s no secret, there are millions of people in America who have given up on American democracy. They’re working longer hours for low wages, they’ve seen their jobs go to China, they can’t afford child care, they can’t afford health care, they can’t afford to send their kids to college, they can’t afford housing,” Sanders said. “They look around and say, ‘Does anyone care about me?’ … The time is long overdue for us to restore the faith of the American people in a democratic society.”

The Vermont senator’s team sold the trip to Indiana and Iowa as Sanders taking the budget blueprint to the heart of Trump country, in a pair of congressional districts where the former president increased his raw vote total in 2020. Biden, however, grew the number of Democratic votes in those two districts by similar margins, election results show.

And the two towns he visited are Democratic oases.

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Iowa’s Linn County, home to Cedar Rapids, represents the deepest well of Democratic votes in the state outside of Des Moines. Indiana’s Tippecanoe County, home to West Lafayette, was one of just five of the state’s 92 counties to vote for Biden.

“West Lafayette is not Berkeley by any stretch,” said former Indiana state Senate Majority Leader Brandt Hershman, a Republican who represented the area for 18 years. “But it is an outpost that does not reflect the views of Indiana as a whole.”

‘So much division’

Despite their varying political backgrounds, a quartet of Purdue students who attended the rally together agreed it did little to appeal more broadly to Republicans.

Bryson Laken, 19, from Minooka, and Liam McCormack, 18, from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, are both GOP voters. Stephanie Perun, 19, from St. Louis, is an independent voter, and Trent Bloor, 19, from Kent, Washington, considers himself a social Democrat. None of them left convinced any minds were changed.

“I don’t think there was anything for Republicans here. It was very tailored to the Democratic population of West Lafayette,” said Laken, who wore a blue Trump hat and said he appreciated the former president’s blunt style and business sensibilities. “It didn’t seem like a town hall. It seemed like a Bernie rally.”

Perun said she was turned off by all of Sanders’ attacks on Republicans, and joked that she elbowed her Trump-supporting friend each time and asked him why he did so many bad things as a GOP voter. Even as a supporter, Bloor said the only way Sanders and Democrats will win over the lack of trust from those wary of a lot of spending for new social programs is to actually enact them and show they work.

“I’m skeptical that words can change anyone’s minds in times like these,” Bloor said. “The most important thing for the Democratic Party moving forward is action.”

Hershman, the former Republican state lawmaker from the area, said Sanders’ push for big social programs to working-class Republicans runs counter to the conditions on the ground in Indiana, where unemployment is low, wages have grown and nearby employers, such as the large Subaru plant in Lafayette, are known for treating their nonunionized work forces well. Indiana also is a right-to-work state, making it harder for employees to organize.

“Sen. Sanders’ hybrid message of socialism and populist ideas tends to resonate in poor economic times, which is not the case here,” Hershman said. “His additional message of protecting the working man from the excesses of corporate capitalism does not play very well here either because that is not people’s experience.”

Even as an avid supporter, Sheila Rosenthal said she was surprised to see Sanders put West Lafayette on his calendar. She said that perhaps the active “Boilers for Bernie” chapter on campus that helped him win the 2016 Indiana primary over Clinton may have played a role in the visit.

“I do wonder how far this goes in reaching Republicans, because it seems like there is so much division,” said Rosenthal, 70, a retired nurse, who wore a T-shirt with a caricature of Sanders that read, “Finally BS worth voting for.”

Her husband, Frank Rosenthal, suggested that it’s all part of Sanders’ methodic approach to building political momentum over time, noting how he has shifted the nature of the policy conversation within the Democratic Party over the course of several years.

“It’s not about how many votes or how much support he got from these particular people who attended this session here,” said Frank Rosenthal, 77, a retired health sciences professor at Purdue. “It’s part of this process of engaging with more conservative elements, finding out what people think, figuring out how to talk to them and figuring out how to build a movement that is going to carry this thing forward. That’s typical Bernie. It’s not just here and now. He sees a long-term struggle.”

‘He’s wasting his time’

While Sanders and Democrats have virtually no chance of winning over any Republican votes for the budget package on Capitol Hill, they are hoping to drive support for some of its elements among GOP and independent voters more broadly. A poll last month from The Associated Press and NORC at the University of Chicago found that roughly 40% of Republicans backed free pre-K and 30% supported the concept of free community college.

Over at American Legion Post 492 in West Lafayette, the same generally held true among the Republicans gathered for a Friday happy hour.

They weren’t opposed to the concepts of helping families with pre-K or community college and improving Medicare to cover more services. But unlike yes-or-no poll questions on policies, the discussion didn’t take place in an apolitical vacuum.

Five voters who backed Trump all agreed they didn’t trust Sanders, Biden or Democrats to carry out such programs fairly. Some said they could get behind the ideas if they weren’t giveaways for all and weren’t backed by massive tax increases.

“Why do we have to raise taxes on anybody? I just don’t get it,” said Mitch Alfson, 61, who voted for Trump. “The projects they’re talking about, some of them are great projects, but is the money really going to go to that or are all they all going to line their pockets? I don’t trust ‘em, especially Bernie.”

With a Copenhagen tobacco pouch tucked into his lower lip, Alfson explained he generally considers all politicians to be crooks, with Trump being the rare exception because he didn’t consider him to be a politician at all.

“American citizens don’t have any trust in any government official anymore,” said Alfson, who works as a clerk at a Casey’s convenience store. “That’s why no one is going to go for any of this stuff.”

Conkright, the Trump voter who attended the Sanders rally, said he would be OK with pre-K and free community college if it was optional and for low-income individuals, but he generally opposes raising taxes, believing it hurts the economy and jobs. His one exception: taxes on the uber-wealthy billionaires Sanders rails against for paying virtually no federal taxes.

“Those billionaires and businesses that are paying zero taxes, that ain’t right,” Conkright said. “I make $15 an hour and I have to pay taxes, and these guys are probably making $15 million a day and not paying anything.”

Still, Conkright said he can’t get on board with spending anywhere close to the $3.5 trillion Sanders wants, especially since half of it would add to the national debt.

“How are we going to pay for all of this s—?” he said shaking his head. “I don’t know if China will lend us that much money.”

As the group hammered away at Sanders on the Legion post’s patio, Joe Arnold would occasionally chime in with criticism of Trump.

The 66-year-old independent voter backed former Republican Presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush and detests former Democratic President Bill Clinton. He also voted twice for former Democratic President Barack Obama and didn’t cast a vote in the 2016 race because he did not trust Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Arnold, who voted for Biden, said he appreciates Sanders’ efforts to look out for working people, backs improving Medicare and thinks lowering drug prices is the most important thing lawmakers could do in Washington.

“As far as free pre-K and college, I’m OK with it for the people who absolutely need it and qualify,” Arnold said. “But don’t just give it to people who could get by if they scraped and worked hard.”

As he disappeared into the air conditioning of the Legion hall to grab another Bud Light, Arnold said he was glad Sanders was coming to town to make his case, but he didn’t expect him to win over a single Trump voter or any Republican.

“I wish Bernie luck,” he said. “But in Indiana, he’s wasting his time.”

bruthhart@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @BillRuthhart

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