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How Democrats in Congress Responded to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Surprise Win

6 minute read

By all accounts, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s upset of a 10-term Democratic lawmaker on Tuesday night was a stunner. The 28-year-old former bartender — a democratic socialist who ran on a platform of universal health care, ending tuition at public colleges and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency — defeated Rep. Joe Crowley by double digits.

Crowley, who had his eyes on a Democratic leadership post, raised more than $3 million for the primary in New York’s 14th congressional district, with a donor list that read like a NASDAQ ticker; Ocasio-Cortez had just north of $300,000. Perhaps more critically, Ocasio-Cortez won on a campaign putting forward the sort of left-leaning ideas that until very recently many Democrats considered fringe. The district, which encompasses parts of Queens and the Bronx and is about half Hispanic, leans deeply Democratic and her primary win all but assures she’ll soon be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.

Despite all this, Democrats on Capitol Hill downplayed the larger meaning of the result on Wednesday.

“Yes, I was surprised, because no one expected him to lose,” Rep. James Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat who serves as the House’s Assistant Minority Leader, said as he entered an elevator off the House chamber. But when asked what, if anything, the New York contest augured for the party’s ideological tact, he was curt. “Nothing,” he said. “Nothing for the party.”

“One election out of five hundred and thirty five?” Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy scoffed when asked the same question, boarding the subway train connecting the Capitol to the Russell Senate Office Building. “Listen, I do not know the district. I’m not trying to dodge your question.” The train then pulled away.

Critics of the Democratic establishment say this is precisely the strain of dismissiveness that has stoked disenchantment among the party’s base. This was a spiritual tension at the core of the 2016 Democratic primary: Sen. Bernie Sanders, a previously little-known independent from Vermont, ran on an unabashedly progressive platform; his dogma, and the grassroots support it received, underscored the relatively centrist campaign of his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

The gap between these two factions has not narrowed in the years since. The intraparty battle continues to be especially loud on social media platforms like Twitter and played a role in the fight between former Labor Secretary Tom Perez and Sanders ally Rep. Keith Ellison to chair the Democratic National Committee. (Perez won.)

But a number of the party’s rising stars seem to sense that change is afoot. In October, a quarter of all Senate Democrats — notably including potential 2020 contenders Sens. Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren — signed onto a Sanders bill for universal health care. He had introduced a similar bill two years prior, and couldn’t find a single cosponsor.

Sanders was elated on Wednesday after what transpired the previous evening in New York, and also in Maryland, where Ben Jealous, a progressive who previously chaired the NAACP, had won the Democratic primary for governor by more than 10 percentage points.

“When you are running a grassroots campaign, when you are talking about issues that matter to people in your district, you can win no matter what,” Sanders told TIME in a telephone interview. “Today, you’ve got well over a hundred million people who are struggling to put food on the table. You’ve got 30 million people with no healthcare.”

“In other words,” Sanders continued, “You have a middle class which is struggling and you have some people living in desperate poverty, and for too long the Democratic Party did not understand that reality.”

The party stands now at an ideological crossroads ahead of this November’s midterm elections. For months, pundits have predicted a “blue wave,” citing President Donald Trump’s unpopularity and the historical tendency for the president’s own party to lose seats in the first midterm contest after his taking office. But progressive commentators care less about the numbers game of the horse race and more about whether the party will move left.

“Alexandria’s victory is incontrovertible proof that not only is the progressive agenda deeply resonating with voters, but that running ‘uncorrupted’ is a powerful electoral tool,” Emma Vigeland, a correspondent for the progressive digital media outlet The Young Turks, tells TIME. “The Democratic Party would be wise to learn from this historic win.”

Her victory is also the latest strike against the leadership of Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a longtime bête noire for conservatives who in recent months has faced increasing criticism from her own ranks. A number of House Democrats — both progressives like Ocasio-Cortez and moderates like Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, who won in a special election in his Trump-supporting district earlier this year — have declined to support Pelosi’s continued leadership. Crowley, who at 56 is a generation younger than the 78-year-old Pelosi, was widely considered her successor.

When asked about this on Wednesday, however, Pelosi’s allies did not seem particularly concerned, chalking up the upset in New York to an anomaly.

“We can’t write trend stories at this point when one thing has happened,” one senior leadership aide tells TIME. “You’re talking about a district that’s probably in the top 5% of the most liberal districts in the country. I think everyone is surprised, because Crowley and his folks were giving off very confident vibes. Obviously, he tried to move to the left, and it wasn’t enough.”

But the demographic peculiarities of the race did not detract progressives from their confidence in what they saw as the election’s broader philosophical crux: that Democratic voters seem ready for a change.

“You’ve got to present an agenda and ideas to the American people and working families that make sense to them,” Sanders tells TIME. “But that’s not enough. You need to run a strong grassroots campaign. Alexandria was outspent by 10-, 15-to-one. And she won. When you get people involved in the political process, nobody can stop us.”

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