It’s hard to overstate the significance of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset primary win over 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th Congressional district. She is a working-class Latina who was bartending less than a year ago. She is an unapologetic socialist who called for abolishing ICE back in February. She was out-raised by Crowley 10 to 1.
But the Democratic leadership is already downplaying the progressive energy that they should be celebrating:
Pelosi also told reporters that voters “made a choice in one district. So, let’s not get yourself carried away as an expert on demographics and this or that within the caucus or outside the caucus.”
Bronx Borough president Ruben Diaz Jr. lamented the fact that Crowley faced a primary, saying that “Washington is about consistency and seniority.” Centrist organization Third Way’s Matt Bennett, inexplicably interviewed by Axios to analyze Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, said, “Her win had more to do with the nature of her very blue district than it does with national politics. Sanders-style candidates are still losing almost all of the Democratic primaries they run in. If Democrats do regain control of the House ... it will be largely because of moderates winning in tough red and purple districts.”
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Yes, it’s true that Ocasio-Cortez ran in a very blue district; it’s also likely that many of her far-left views wouldn’t work for red districts (although Democrats everywhere can learn from her tactics of hyper-local, on-the-ground canvassing combined with a smart digital campaign). But the dismissive attitude of Ocasio-Cortez’s win embodied by some establishment and centrist Democrats completely fails to see what should be a very obvious point: The goal isn’t just to elect more Democrats, but better ones.
Fighting for majorities in the House and Senate is indisputably important. But fighting for Democrats who support better policies and who are connected to and truly representative of their districts (Crowley, a white man, represented a district that was majority-minority) should be a core goal as well: This is the “larger” part of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory that Pelosi is missing.
As Ocasio-Cortez put it herself in an interview with Splinter back in March, failing to push Democrats in safe blue districts is a “massively wasted opportunity”:
If you look at what’s going on in the Republican Party, the safest red seats are the ones that are dragging this country really backwards.
When you look at what we’ve got in the Democratic Party, the people who have these safe seats are centrist, corporatist Democrats. If we have to have centrist Democrats in the party, let those Democrats come from swing districts. But in districts that are very highly Democratic, we should be advancing the national conversation on prison abolition, on student debt cancelation, on Puerto Rico, on a Marshall Plan, on 100% renewable energy in ten years. But no one is advancing that guard in this country because some of our most progressive districts are held by some of the most Wall Street-friendly candidates. It’s a massively wasted opportunity that is slowing progress in America.
It’s clear that the Democratic Party didn’t seize this opportunity. The only member of Congress to endorse Ocasio-Cortez was Ro Khanna, who also endorsed Crowley. And, as the Intercept pointed out on Tuesday, the Democratic-aligned group EMILY’s List, which focuses on getting pro-choice women elected, stayed out of the race. It’s uncommon for the group to endorse challengers to Democratic incumbents—their strategy is to save their resources for battleground states. But in a historic year for women running, groups like EMILY’s List should be questioning if that playbook is good enough.
It’s not surprising that Democrats are hesitating to eat their own; it’s also natural that this push should come from outside the establishment. But Ocasio-Cortez was the first person in fourteen years to step up in a district where its Democratic representative had become complacent. There is no excuse for Democrats to not push vigorously for their safe blue districts to be truly transformative.
“We really need to be a party of ideas and of bold, ambitious legislation and advancing things that people never thought were before possible,” Ocasio-Cortez said to me in March. “Because that is what makes government inspiring, that is what makes that makes people want to knock on their neighbor’s door.”