by Melanie Zanona · July 11, 2018
Democrats are racing to figure out how to handle Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose primary win over a longtime incumbent is set to shake up the party’s Washington establishment.
Ocasio-Cortez’s shock victory over Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) made the 28-year-old an overnight sensation in the Big Apple and across the country, leading Democrats to bombard her with messages of congratulations and offers to cooperate in the future.
“The entire spectrum of House Democrats, party leadership, [campaign] leadership, is trying to assess what she wants to do and how ready she is to play ball,” said one Democratic source.
They want to know “how does her coming to Washington change my plan, or even help my plan?”
Democrats are largely thrilled to welcome the telegenic rising star to their ranks, though she is already ruffling some feathers.
Ocasio-Cortez plans to hit the campaign trail for at least three other Democratic candidates in primary races this year who are backed by Justice Democrats, a PAC that supports progressives.
That includes Missouri congressional candidate Cori Bush, a former teacher, registered nurse and pastor who is vying to unseat longtime Democratic Rep. Lacy Clay.
“We’re trying to take back the House, but it seems like they’re just trying to go after Democrats. It makes no sense,” said Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), who vigorously defended Clay’s work on the Financial Services Committee. “I would hope that the new member coming in would … keep the eye on the prize.”
A source close to Ocasio-Cortez said the candidate is not interested in following the conventional Democratic playbook.
What’s the point, the source said, or “we’re gonna get the same results we have had for the last decade.”
Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) said Democrats should take a lesson from Crowley, who accepted his defeat by serenading Ocasio-Cortez with a version of “Born to Run.”
“If we’re smart we’ll welcome her with open arms,” said Welch.
He nonetheless acknowledged that some Democrats may hold a grudge.
“We’re members of Congress,” he quipped. “We have a tendency to get things wrong as frequently as possible.”
Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) predicted that Democrats will welcome Ocasio-Cortez, who served as a foot soldier in Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) presidential campaign. He noted that her surprise win is likely to earn her major respect within the conference.
“You can like and appreciate Joe and wish him well and hope that he’ll succeed without necessarily resenting somebody who successfully challenged him and clearly represents the face of the district,” he told The Hill. “I think that will command respect in the Caucus.”
A self-described democratic socialist, Ocasio-Cortez seized on voters’ desire to topple the political establishment. Key components of her campaign include rejecting corporate PAC money, raising the minimum wage, banning private prisons and making Medicare available for all.
She is not expected to face a tough general election race, meaning that when she visits Washington next week to meet with Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and a handful of her early supporters, she can feel assured she is meeting with her future colleagues.
“She’s going to be a rock star and a huge progressive force the first day she arrives,” said Khanna, a Bay Area liberal who endorsed both Ocasio-Cortez and Crowley in the primary.
Ocasio-Cortez will have enormous political firepower when she gets to Congress.
She boasts nearly 700,000 Twitter followers, far more than many members of Congress, and has shown a skill for handling the media. After her victory, her team said it was dealing with 1,000 media requests, and she quickly made the rounds not only on the news shows but in interviews on “The Late Show” with Stephen Colbert.
Lawmakers, aware of the clout she may yield, have already been reaching out to ask which caucuses she wants to join, whether she has leadership ambitions and what some of her broad ideas and goals might be, according to a Democratic source.
Some members are even jockeying for an opportunity to work with the rising star as she contemplates her path in Congress.
“I’ve already had many of my colleagues asking to reach out to her,” Khanna said. “Members of Congress aren’t fighting over her, but they’re very, very excited about the prospect of her joining a caucus and want the opportunity to work with her.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s victory has provoked new questions about whether House Democrats need to welcome a new generation of leaders, and whether the party is tilting too far to the left.
The top three Democratic leaders have held a firm grip on power for more than a decade, and Crowley had been seen as a potential future Speaker.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), who has long warned that the Democrats’ focus on liberal identity politics risks alienating the blue-collar working-class voters in heartland districts like his, said Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is no indication that the party on the whole is shifting to the left.
“We saw Conor Lamb win, too,” Ryan said Tuesday by phone, mentioning a centrist Democrat who took a GOP seat in a Pennsylvania special election earlier this year.
“So my big pitch is that you’ve got to let people run in their district and let them determine what the issues are, and what the priorities are in that congressional district,” he said. “That’s the essence of being a member of Congress. And so everybody’s got to make their own judgment on that.”
Connolly warned that being a freshman in a body of 435 lawmakers is “a humbling experience” — one that will both require some time for Ocasio-Cortez to gain her footing and have a “tempering” effect on her sway over the direction of the party.
“Once she is elected, she will be a freshman like everybody else,” Connolly told The Hill. “She may be outspoken, she may have a shine to her and some notoriety, obviously, associated with her and not with everybody else.”
“But you know, once you join the freshman class, you’ve got to deal with that reality of adjusting to the institution, getting oriented, learning how things are done or how you can be successful, and forging alliances, not just with people who share your ideological perspective but others as well,” he added.
Khanna, however, stressed that Ocasio-Cortez is likeable, charismatic and eager to build relationships with lawmakers across the ideological spectrum.
“If you have a compelling message and personality, you can have a huge impact around here,” Khanna said.
Mike Lillis contributed.
The Hill · by Melanie Zanona · July 11, 2018