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Bernie Sanders Faces Senate Challenger Amid Escalating FBI Investigation

On Friday, a Democratic challenger announced his candidacy to defeat Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in the 2018 Vermont Senate race. His announcement came just as the FBI investigation into Sanders' wife started heating up.

"I hold him absolutely, centrally responsible for Donald Trump being president," Jon Svitavsky, an advocate for the homeless who will run against Sanders next year, told NBC News. "That's my number one issue."

Sanders has won by huge margins in Vermont, serving as the state's at-large representative in the U.S. House of Representatives for 16 years and in the U.S. Senate for nearly 12 years. But Svitavsky threw his hat in the ring, running as a kind of establishment Democrat against the insurgent Independent who nearly defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016.

"There's a lot of anger out there in my party against Bernie," Svitavsky explained. He reported receiving support from thousands of people across the country after "soft-launching" his campaign Friday.

The Sanders challenger suggested that the Democrats need to stop "coddling" the senator. "I believe that Bernie Sanders' entire involvement with the Democratic party has been devastating. I think it was a big mistake for the Democratic party to let him in in the first place."

While Sanders won the Vermont primary last year with more than 85 percent of the vote, and had the Democrats clear the field for him in 2006 and 2012, Svitavsky said that Vermont voters are concerned by the FBI investigation into Burlington College, a school run by Sanders's wife. "It's a very serious investigation," he said.

Perhaps ironically, Svitavsky graduated from Burlington College, the small school where Jane O'Meara Sanders served as president from 2004 to 2011.

On Monday, The Washington Post reported that an FBI investigation into the school had "accelerated in recent months — with prosecutors hauling off more than a dozen boxes of records," and many interviews leading up to a grand jury trial. Six people told The Post that the FBI or federal prosecutors approached them in the case.

In 2010, Jane Sanders convinced the school to take out a bank loan in order to expand. The move from its storefront campus to waterfront property purchased from the Roman Catholic diocese would cost the school $10 million.

Sanders had projected a surge in enrollment and presented documents showing $2.6 million in "confirmed" donations, according to two former trustees of the college. The documents only identified the donors by their initials, ostensibly to protect their anonymity.

"The board made the decision based on the information Jane provided," Adam Dantzscher, chairman of the board at the time, told The Post. The board chose to purchase the land in May 2010, receiving a $6.7 million loan with the help of the Vermont Educational and Health Buildings Financing Agency.

Sanders signed a document saying that the college "expects to receive pledged amounts" of about $2.27 million, but those donations failed to come in.

The Post reported that one of the donations was a $1 million gift from Corrine Bove Maietta. Trustees later learned that the $1 million was intended as a bequest upon her death, and that she intended the $50,000 to $100,000 gift she had already given to be subtracted from that bequest. Maietta's accountant, Richard Moss, said that FBI agents contacted him in February or March.

By October 2011, the trustees asked Sanders to resign. Even after Sanders left, the financial problems proved insurmountable, and the school closed last May.

Bernie Sanders denied that the FBI investigation is a black mark on his wife's record at the school, however. "When [Jane Sanders] left Burlington College, the school was in better shape financially and academically than it had ever been," Sanders told the Burlington Free Press.

Whatever the damage of the FBI investigation and Svitavsky's blaming Sanders for Donald Trump's victory last November, the Democrat's chances of supplanting Bernie in 2018 remain small.

"Anybody who's going to run against Bernie will use this [FBI investigation] to justify it, but Bernie's popularity is enough to withstand it," University of Vermont political scientist Garrison Nelson told NBC News. "It's a kamikaze mission to go after Bernie."

Perhaps Svitavsky's biggest weakness is the perspective that the Democratic National Convention (DNC) pulled the strings for Hillary Clinton, effectively stealing the nomination from Sanders. While Svitavsky argues that Sanders kept Clinton from beating Trump, many liberals think Clinton kept Sanders from beating Trump.

Even so, Sanders is a polarizing figure. He has courted controversy, identifying himself as a "democratic socialist," comparing the Republican health care bill to the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, and declaring that Christians cannot serve in government if they think Jesus is the only way to salvation.

Could these developments marks the beginning of Sanders' fall from grace in the Democratic Party? Does Svitavsky provide the party's establishment an opportunity to reject Sanders and move closer to the center? Don't hold your breath.