Stunning defeat emboldens left as Dems eye new identity

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez surprised herself. And a lot of other people, too.

The 28-year-old liberal activist, who worked as a bartender at times last year, knocked off the No. 4 House Democrat Tuesday in New York City. And in so doing, the former Bernie Sanders campaign organizer threw a spotlight on the surge of energy on the left that’s re-defining the Democratic Party’s search for a new identity in the age of Donald Trump.

“We always thought it was possible,” Ocasio-Cortez said of her win against 10-term incumbent Joe Crowley in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press. She added: “I just felt like we could do so much better, and we could be so much better.”

But hardly clearer for the party.

Her stunning victory in the Democratic primary offers a new window into the tug-of-war for the direction of the party as Trump’s presidency stretches through its second year, a fight often overshadowed by the more explosive intraparty debate on the Republican side.

Ocasio-Cortez’s unlikely win elevated the Democratic Party base’s leftward lurch on some issues — the embrace of Medicare for all and the abolition of the federal agency that enforces immigration laws, among them — even if the party’s establishment leaders are reluctant to promote such liberal priorities as Democrats fight for control of Congress this fall.

Some party leaders fear that Ocasio-Cortez and her Sanders-style message could alienate voters in key races this fall where vulnerable Democrats must appeal to conservative Democrats and even some Republicans.

The GOP was more than happy to highlight Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, with the Republican National Committee blasting out a can-you-believe-it statement about Democrats moving “drastically to the left” as they “elected a self-avowed socialist.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was quick to declare that while Ocasio-Cortez’s New York City district may be moving to the left, it’s not necessarily a sign of a broader shift within her party.

“Nobody’s district is representative of somebody else’s district,” Pelosi said, calling the New York outcome “just a sign of vitality of our party.”

The response was just the opposite for liberal leaders such as Sanders and for Trump-resistance groups such as Indivisible and MoveOn.

“What Alexandria did was really quite unbelievable. It tells me that the political revolution is alive and well and spreading all across this country,” Sanders said in an interview.

Ocasio-Cortez’s embrace of Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage and a new immigration system, Sanders said, is exactly the kind of message needed to energize Democratic voters across the country.

Yet the Vermont senator stopped short of agreeing with Ocasio-Cortez’s call to abolish the department of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

“I understand completely that people in their total disgust with what the Trump administration is doing are calling for the abolition of ICE,” Sanders said. “I think what we’ve got to do is abolish the entire ugly immigration policy that exists right now and move toward immigration reform, comprehensive immigration reform.”

Sanders, who is 76 and hasn’t said whether he’ll make a second presidential run in 2020, insisted the new direction of the party should focus on progressive policies, not necessarily a new generation of leaders.

But Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a former presidential contender himself, took away a very different lesson from Ocasio-Cortez’s win.

“I don’t think this has anything to do with ideology; I think this has to do with generations,” Dean said in an interview. “I don’t want to support anybody who’s over 50, 55 in the presidential race. It’s time for a new generation to take over. This generation is taking over.”

Dean said both major political parties are “imploding” but for very different reasons.

“The Republican Party is imploding because they’re all old and white and angry — and their message is mostly built on hate,” he said. “The Democratic Party is imploding because a whole new group of people are coming in that don’t care about institutions and don’t think they’re necessary.”

He added: “We’re imploding in a good way.”

Victories by liberal Democrats in House primaries is a sign of Democratic enthusiasm, especially in swing-voting or GOP-leaning districts where establishment Democrats have assumed voters prefer incremental changes, said Adam Green, of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Green cited liberal Kara Eastman’s victory over conservative Democrat Brad Ashford in a swing-voting Omaha-area district in Nebraska last month, and Katie Porter in GOP-leaning Orange County, California, this month as evidence that Democrats are siding with liberals when offered the choice.

“What’s being proven is the best way to maximize a Democratic wave is to field a new class of younger, diverse economic populists who can genuinely connect with voters and reflect their lives, instead of corporate, conservative Democrats,” said Green, the PCCC’s co-founder.

The next race to watch is the Aug. 7 Democratic primary for Kansas’ 3rd District. That’s in politically mixed suburban Kansas City where Clinton narrowly won in 2016 and labor lawyer Brent Welder has the backing of Sanders and Green’s group.

Welder, a Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic convention, is running on an agenda that includes single-payer health insurance in his hope of taking on Republican Kevin Yoder, who was elected in the 2010 Republican wave when the GOP took over the House.

Welder’s Democratic rivals include teacher Tom Niermann, who makes no mention of health care on his website, Mike McCamon, a Kansas City-area nonprofit executive who promotes “leading from the center,” and businessman Jay Sidie, who proposes measures to tweak the 2010 health care law.

Back in New York, Ocasio-Cortez hopes that her victory is a sign of more liberal victories across the country.

“I hope that I get to Washington not just alone but with an entire caucus of newly elected progressives,” she told the AP.

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Barrow reported from Atlanta. AP writers Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, and Alan Fram in Washington contributed.

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