How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat one of Congress' most powerful Democrats
What the Democratic left can learn from the young socialist's stunning victory
Voters in Queens and the Bronx unleashed a political earthquake last night.
First-time candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez cruised to a surprise victory over Rep. Joe Crowley in the Democratic primary election for New York's 14th congressional district. And her victory might just point to the future of Democratic politics.
Crowley had held his safely Democratic seat since 1999. During his time in Congress, he was a serviceable mainstream Democrat. He supported the Affordable Care Act, endorsed Medicare for all last year, but also had a history of scuttling Wall Street regulation after hobnobbing with financial industry lobbyists. He rose into House Democratic leadership, and was rumored to be a potential candidate to lead his party's caucus after this year's midterm elections.
Those plans have now been cast aside by an unlikely political force of nature. Crowley hadn't even faced a primary challenger in 14 years before Ocasio-Cortez entered the race last year. She's a 28-year-old former educator and Bernie Sanders organizer. She was waiting tables in a restaurant when she launched her long-shot congressional bid, handing out campaign literature in between shifts. I live in one of the neighborhoods of her district, and I saw the markers of her campaign gaining steam: her literature appearing near train stations, her name chalked across sidewalks, her poster taped to bodega windows.
It was Ocasio-Cortez against the machine, and her movement won.
She ran a campaign centered on constituents, not donors. "We've got people, they've got money," she said in her viral self-produced campaign ad. That wasn't an exaggeration. Crowley amassed over $3 million for the race, while Ocasio-Cortez raised just $300,000 — most of which was from small donors. Not a dollar came from corporate political action committees.
But Ocasio-Cortez turned her fundraising disadvantage into a potential strength as a clear and direct signal of whose side she was on. One campaign volunteer told Jeff Stein of The Washington Post that Ocasio-Cortez's strongest campaign message was the fact that her opponent took money from corporate PACs and lobbyists, while she did not. "Everything about Ocasio-Cortez, they could get from that fact about her," he said.
She relied on a people-powered campaign, small donors, energetic volunteers, and grassroots appeal. She built her movement through tireless organizing, and through her own intrinsic appeal. At 28, she'll become the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Representatives. And as a working-class Latina with deep family roots in the Bronx, she is a good demographic representative for her district.
Ocasio-Cortez also spoke forcefully about the ideas she believed in. A self-described democratic socialist, she backed Medicare for all, a universal jobs guarantee, tuition-free public college and trade schools, and abolishing ICE. She proved that the moral force of a platform grounded in uncompromised normative principles about what is right and just has the power to transform what's politically and electorally possible.
She also showed that these left-inspired ideas deserve a place in our policy discourse. In an interview with a local news station, Ocasio-Cortez was quizzed on how she'd pay for policies like a jobs guarantee, and what it would mean to defund ICE. Suddenly, these ideas were no longer treated as pie-in-the-sky fantasies, but as real, live proposals worth debating. You could almost see the ground in our politics shifting.
More Democratic candidates would do well to follow Ocasio-Cortez's lead. In 2018, big money political support is morphing from a political asset into a downright liability. The Democratic Party should abandon the self-defeating hunt for congressional candidates with deep pockets and well-heeled connections and instead encourage more regular citizens to run — working-class people and young people, with straightforward ideas about how to address the issues their communities care about. Candidates who are representatives in the truest sense of the word.
Citizen candidates have been the key to the Democrats' biggest electoral triumphs over the last year, from the crop of first-time candidates that rocked the Virginia House of Delegates, to Sen. Doug Jones' upset win in Alabama, to Rep. Conor Lamb's victory in a deep-red Pennsylvania special election. In an age of perpetual American distrust of entrenched politicians, these candidates each ran as outsiders in tune with their constituents' concerns and values. So too has Ocasio-Cortez.
She shouldn't be the last, either. "Women like me aren't supposed to run for office," she said in her campaign ad. There are undoubtedly more Ocasio-Cortezes out there, in every district across the country, waiting to be heard. Hopefully her Earth-rattling victory inspires more to run. If so, she could be the awakening of a real political revolution.