When the prominent left-wing intellectual Cornel West launched a third-party run for president this week, not every Democrat on the Hill scoffed at his campaign. In fact, one sitting lawmaker had something positive to say about it.
“The U.S. has a long history of issue candidates who run in order to bring attention to important principles and ideas. I welcome Cornel West entering the race to make this country more just for all,” Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told POLITICO. “I believe he will bring more people into the process and push for progressive policies.”
Khanna, the former campaign co-chair of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) 2020 campaign, wasn’t endorsing West. He went on to stress that he believed the West bid could “ultimately help” President Joe Biden, whom Khanna is supporting. He added that it is his job to help persuade liberal voters to back Biden.
But the instinctive openness Khanna showed toward West underscored a relatively unique headache the latter’s candidacy poses. Unlike the other fringe candidates mounting presidential bids — such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and Marianne Williamson — West is not running as a Democrat. He is on the People’s Party ticket, which means he could be on the general election ballot in a small number of states. And while that may limit the votes he can take from Biden, there’s concern among Democrats that he could be a spoiler in November of 2024.
The former Harvard professor and progressive pundit still enjoys strong relations within the larger universe of Sanders’ supporters, having served as a major surrogate for the Vermont independent’s two own presidential runs. Sanders’ aides and allies adore him.
The Sanders Institute, a progressive think tank founded by Sanders’ wife and son, retweeted West’s presidential campaign announcement, quoting a line from West’s kickoff video and highlighting that West is a fellow at the group. The institute later deleted the tweet, saying that it was a mistake made by an aide when asked about it by POLITICO.
“The Sanders Institute regularly posts news on fellows and a staffer had posted that,” said Shana Frahm, the group’s spokesperson. “It was taken down right away because the institute is a nonprofit and doesn’t take a position on candidates.”
But others in that orbit haven’t shied away from their support for West. RoseAnn DeMoro, a longtime Sanders ally and the former executive director of National Nurses United, said she would consider getting behind him in 2024: “I think Cornel West is one of the most amazing people on the planet.”
DeMoro, who has been highly critical of Biden on Twitter, rejected the idea that West could be a spoiler in the presidential race, saying, “That’s a false narrative.”
No third-party member has ever won the presidency, but both Democrats and Republicans have argued that such candidates have been spoilers in the past. Many Democrats feel that the Green Party’s Jill Stein siphoned votes from Hillary Clinton in 2016, helping usher former President Donald Trump into office. Some Republicans likewise think Ross Perot paved the way for Bill Clinton.
West’s People’s Party only currently has ballot access in Florida, according to the group’s national chair, Nick Brana. But, he added, “We plan on being on all 50 states.” While that’s a tall order, some progressives are privately floating the possibility of West running on the Green Party’s ballot line, too. Brana said there have been no such discussions with the Green Party. But Gloria Mattera and Gregg Jocoy, co-chairs of the Green Party’s media committee, did not rule out the possibility and said that “we have a process and Dr. West is welcome to seek the nomination under the party rules and requirements.”
West has no chance of beating Biden. But the fear in some Democratic circles is that West’s candidacy, and the fondness that he elicits from individuals in Sanders’ orbit, may provide a permission structure for a small percentage of progressives to sour on the president. Sixty-nine percent of liberal voters approve of Biden’s job performance, compared to 21 percent who disapprove, according to a recent poll by Monmouth University. But Biden faces deep skepticism among young voters, a key constituency of Sanders’, with 56 percent of 18- to 34-year-olds giving him a thumbs down and 32 percent a thumbs up.
Sanders himself has made it clear that he is standing behind Biden, having served as a reliable team player since the 2020 election. The Biden team, meanwhile, appears for now to be taking a similar approach to West as it has to Kennedy, though they’re very different candidates: Ignore him. The Biden campaign did not provide a comment for this story.
But the West bid isn’t being entirely left alone. One Biden ally, Rep. Brendan Boyle (D-Pa.), lashed out at it.
“My opinion is exactly the same whether it's Cornel West or Joe Manchin. Any Democrat who runs an independent or third-party presidential campaign is dramatically helping Republican odds' of victory,” said Boyle in an interview. “It’s that simple. And unfortunately, I have seen this play before.”
Mark Longabaugh, a top strategist for Sanders’ 2016 presidential bid, said he had “nothing but great respect and appreciation for Cornel West." But, he added, he thinks Democrats should be more concerned about a potential independent bid by Manchin, West Virginia's Democratic senator.
"You've got to have at least some level of financial ability to be able to build and run a campaign,” said Longabaugh, who is supporting Biden. “I just think all those things are very, very difficult with the People's Party."
People who know Sanders and West said that they are genuinely friends. They are also political allies who share many of the same priorities, such as Medicare for All and forgiving all student loan debt. In 2016, when Sanders was given the ability to place five people on the committee that writes the Democratic Party’s platform, he chose West to be one of them.
“Cornel West is a man of courage and brilliance. He is a prolific writer, an extraordinary orator, and a friend of mine,” Sanders wrote in “Our Revolution,” his book chronicling his 2016 campaign. “It is always a bit intimidating to get up on a stage after being introduced by Cornel. Dr. West was an important part of the campaign from coast to coast.”
After Sanders lost the Democratic nomination in 2016, West endorsed Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate. In 2020, he voted for Biden, explaining that he supported a “mediocre, milquetoast neoliberal centrist because he’s better than fascism, and a fascist catastrophe is worse than a neoliberal disaster.”
Heather Gautney is another Sanders alum who has nothing but nice things to say about West.
“I would run out of superlatives to describe that man. I love him,” said Gautney, Sanders’ senior policy advisor in 2020. “The whole platform that he's running on, his presence in the conversation, I think is vital.”
But if it comes down to the wire and West is only getting 2 percent or 3 percent of the vote in key battleground states, she hopes that he makes a similar determination to the one he did in 2020 — and ultimately backs Biden.
“I trust him to do the right thing,” she said, “and to make the right calculation.”
Asked about what he’d do in such a scenario, West did not respond.