TAHLEQUAH, Okla. – It isn't easy being a Bernie Sanders supporter in a conservative state like Oklahoma. Travis Wyman, a 40-year-old construction worker and online “social justice warrior,” says he and other Sanders fans can hear “fear-mongering words” like socialist and communist thrown at them many times a day.
It's done nothing to deter Wyman, who volunteers for Sanders' presidential campaign at phone banks and was among roughly 200 people who turned out to hear the candidate's wife, Jane Sanders, speak last week in Tahlequah, an eastern Oklahoma city and home to the Cherokee Nation, the largest Native American tribe in the country.
“Man, this is a revolution. We’re here to change the world. There’s only one way to do that, and that’s to be active," said Wyman, a Cherokee Nation citizen who had never voted for any presidential candidate before he cast an early vote for the self-described democratic socialist on Thursday, days before Oklahoma holds its primary.
If places like Oklahoma are tough for the Sanders faithful, it would seem to be even rougher territory for Sanders himself. The state and others like it — solidly conservative places like Utah, Alabama, Arkansas and Texas __ overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in 2016. Republicans dominate politics at almost all levels, and successful Democratic candidates usually reject ideas embraced by progressives like Sanders, such as “Medicare for All.”
But these states, which make up roughly half of those voting in the Super Tuesday contests and where Democrats often are further to the left, are also providing an opportunity — unexpected as it may seem — for the front-runner for the 2020 Democratic nomination to run up the score on his more moderate opponents.
A progressive on the campaign trail — particularly one who has an actual chance of winning — is such a rare sight that Sanders' candidacy is energizing a core base of progressives who are hungry for a chance to support someone who shares their values. And because the total Democratic primary electorate is small and a half dozen or so other candidates are splitting the more moderate vote, Sanders can scoop up delegates with even a modest showing at the polls.
Sanders leads the delegate count heading into Tuesday, after essentially tying former Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg in Iowa then winning New Hampshire and Nevada. He came in second in South Carolina on Saturday, behind former Vice President Joe Biden.
Some of these smaller red states have been friendly to Sanders before. He easily won both Oklahoma and Utah in 2016, garnering almost 80% of the vote in the Utah caucuses over Hillary Clinton, who didn't hold any public events before the late March vote. Sanders held a Salt Lake City rally before the caucuses that was so large, he scheduled another one days later.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank saw the enthusiasm firsthand when he returned home on caucus night to find all the parking spots on his street near a caucus site were taken.
“I think progressives in the party said, ‘This is our chance,’” he said. “There was a sense of ‘he’s one of us.'”
But this time around his more moderate rivals also have been working to win the state, where Republicans outnumber Democrats more than three to one but there’s also a significant slice of the voters who aren’t affiliated with either party. There's also an undercurrent of discomfort with Trump because of his brash style, his history with women and disagreements over the treatment of immigrants and refugees. Utah is welcoming to them, in part because members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is based in the state, were historically driven across the country because of their beliefs and because the faith now has strong growth overseas.
Buttigieg and former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg, a billionaire who has spent millions on TV ads leading up to his Super Tuesday debut, are hoping those voters will turn out for them in the Democratic primary. Buttigieg has racked up endorsements from several politicians in and around the liberal-leaning capital of Salt Lake City. Bloomberg, meanwhile, counts the state’s lone congressional Democrat, Ben McAdams, among his supporters. He’s also built the state’s largest campaign staff.
Sanders' positions on issues like climate change are especially resonant in Utah, where skiers and other outdoors people worry about wildfires and snow pack, Burbank said. Sanders is scheduled to campaign there Monday.
Rachel Frost, 38, a real estate appraiser from Murray, Utah, said she’s settled on Sanders because he’s been consistent for decades on policy, even when he wasn’t taken seriously.
“He may not be the most likable person, but I don’t need to get a beer with the president. I need someone whose policies will help a majority of the people,” she said.
Sanders' success in this year's primaries has been in his ability to expand his coalition to include African Americans, Latinos and others in addition to white working people. In Oklahoma, that's meant building support among Native Americans who make up about 9% of the state's population. Last fall, Sanders attended the largest annual gathering of the Comanche Nation in the state, where he participated in the annual powwow. On Thursday, the event with Jane Sanders opened with a Kiowa Flag Song and a traditional Cherokee-language prayer.
Sanders' message of ending inequality and providing health care as a human right resonates with Native Americans like Pam Edgar, a Creek Nation citizen from Tahlequah. So does his commitment to tribal sovereignty, which includes opposing opening tribal lands to mining.
“Being a tribal member, we have the good fortune of having health care for tribal members, so we don’t have to worry about costs, and having that for all citizens is important," said Edgar, 45.
Sanders' relationship with Oklahoma's tribes also serves as a reminder of rival Elizabeth Warren's own sensitive history in her home state. Warren has apologized to Native Americans after she was criticized for releasing a DNA test meant to bolster her claim to Native American heritage.
Before Jane Sanders' visit to Tahlequah she visited the Black Wall Street Chamber of Commerce in Tulsa's historic Greenwood District, where a race massacre 100 years ago left an estimated 300 of the city’s black residents dead and its thriving black community in rubble. At a souvenir shop, Cleo Harris Jr. sold her a Black Wall Street T-shirt and said he's considering supporting Sanders on Tuesday, noting the 78-year-old was active in the civil rights movement alongside Martin Luther King Jr.
Jane Sanders also spent her time during a trip to Nashville, Tennessee, earlier in the week visiting the city’s more racially and culturally diverse neighborhoods. She told The Associated Press that while Tennessee is a more conservative state, it's also “a working-class state,” which plays to her husband's strengths.
Sanders' campaign has employed five staffers and purchased its first television ad in the state last week. It’s unknown how much support he'll have in a state where Clinton got 66% of the primary vote in 2016.
Brooke Madow, 39, was one of a few dozen people who packed into a modest Nashville coffee shop on Wednesday to see Jane Sanders. Having a chronic, autoimmune disease has made Sanders' trademark Medicare for All a top issue for her, Madow said.
Like Wyman, she said being a progressive in a conservative state can be isolating, but attending Sanders campaign events helps.
“It feels a little crushing at times, but I think coming to things like this make me feel less like I’m living in a red state," she said. "Maybe there are more people like me out there who believe in the things I believe in.”
Burnett reported from Chicago. Associated Press writer Kimberlee Kruesi in Nashville and Lindsay Whitehurst in Salt Lake City contributed to this report.