- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 29, 2016

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) - The Bernie Sanders movement is waning in the Democratic presidential race but is trickling into state politics as a slate of Sanders-inspired liberals is running to unseat incumbent Democrats in the General Assembly.

Wednesday ended the three-day period when Rhode Island residents could declare their candidacies ahead of the September primary and the November general election. Preliminary candidate filing data showed about 20 incumbent Democrats facing Democratic challengers in the September primary.

The group Rhode Island Progressive Democrats of America is endorsing 18 people seeking legislative seats, 12 for seats already held by Democrats. The group’s aim is to upend the state’s Democratic leadership, which it considers too conservative on issues including abortion and guns. Some of its candidates were involved in the Sanders campaign.

Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, has advocated for a curtailed role of Wall Street in the economy and political campaigns, free tuition at public colleges and universities and bold steps to curb climate change, among other issues. He beat former U.S. first lady, New York senator and U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton by nearly 12 percentage points in the state’s Democratic primary on April 26, emboldening his supporters to use their campaign network to fight for changes in their cities and towns and at the State House.

“A lot of these candidates are people we met through the Bernie campaign,” said Samuel Bell, who as state coordinator of the Progressive Democrats group encouraged several of the candidates to run.

Bell said it’s not just the Sanders movement but Rhode Island’s own “corrupt machine” politics that are fueling voter anger and making outsider candidates more appealing. A series of ethics scandals involving the leadership team of Democratic House Speaker Nicholas Mattiello left one House seat open and others vulnerable.

Republicans, who hold a minority of seats in both legislative chambers and are losing several lawmakers not seeking re-election, also are seeking gains. Two Republicans are competing to challenge Mattiello in his suburban Cranston district. But the bigger surprise this season is how many Democratic incumbents are facing challenges from the left.

“The Democrats in Rhode Island, the ones in leadership, are extremely conservative,” said Pawtucket resident David Norton, an Internet marketing consultant running to unseat first-term Democratic Rep. David Coughlin. “The only thing they have that’s in sync or aligned with the national Democratic Party is support for unions and collective bargaining.”

Norton, known mostly for his involvement in the fight to keep the Pawtucket Red Sox from leaving the city, said he’s part of a wave of progressives who “could really change Rhode Island into a truly blue state.” But he also said he admires the fighting spirit of Rhode Island Republicans and tends to side with them in their vocal fights against truck tolls and for fiscal reforms.

Coughlin, the incumbent, said he’s confident he’ll hold his seat representing a working-class neighborhood where he has deep roots and has coached youth sports. He described himself as a loyal Democrat who will vote for Clinton if she’s the party’s presidential nominee.

“Where this guy’s coming from and why the leftist organizations see this as the year, I don’t know,” Coughlin said of his opponent. “I do sit on the more conservative side of the fence. I’m pro-life, for one. My views are definitely aligned with the constituents I’ve spoken to in my district, with my neighbors.”

Other Sanders-inspired newcomers are running without the endorsement of the Progressive Democrats group, either as Democrats or independents. Andrew Maguire filed papers to challenge another Pawtucket incumbent, Democratic Rep. Jean Philippe Barros.

“I’m a big Berniecrat,” Maguire said. “But I can’t say I’m part of the political revolution if all I’m doing is sitting at home sharing posts on Facebook.”

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