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What One New York Primary Says About Democrats and the Midterms

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Posted on : June 29, 2018

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is on her way to being the youngest woman ever elected to Congress after the 28-year-old Latina defeated fourth-ranking House Democrat Joe Crowley in a deep-blue New York City district.

The stunning upset reflects a party with a changing face — demographically and ideologically — that is seeking to recover its political bearings after being swept out of power across the country in 2016.

Here’s how Ocasio-Cortez’s victory affects Democrats, the 2018 battle for control of Congress and, potentially, the 2020 presidential race.

Democratic Voters Want Leaders Who Reflect Them

Crowley’s defeat reflected a hunger among many Democrats for leaders who reflect the demographic changes in the party’s base — and in the nation. The party has undergone a sea change since white working class voters were a prime constituency for Democratic candidates, a phenomenon that was true as recently as the Bill Clinton era. Today it’s increasingly reliant on millennials, minorities and women, the three factions at the heart of President Barack Obama’s victories. Ocasio-Cortez is all three; Crowley was none of them.

“We meet a machine with a movement,” Ocasio-Cortez said in her victory speech. “That is what we have done today.”

A party run by disproportionately older, white males was due for a course change as white voters without college degrees flock to President Donald Trump and the GOP. Ocasio-Cortez is a milestone toward that shift, and it’s a sign that other Democrats may face a similar threat, such as Massachusetts’s Michael Capuano, who is being challenged by Ayanna Pressley, the first black woman elected to the Boston City Council.

But the New York district where she won, covering Queens and part of the Bronx, is one of the most diverse in the country — 50 percent Hispanic and less than 20 percent white, with substantial black and Asian-American populations. As much as they rely on young minority voters, Democrats must also be able to win in more homogeneous, more conservative districts if they hope to reclaim control of Congress.

A Faction of Democrats Are Open to Socialist Ideas

A member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Ocasio-Cortez ran on an unabashedly leftist platform of Medicare for all, a federal jobs guarantee, making housing a human right, gun control, ending private prisons, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and tuition-free public college. That’s indicative of a broader leftward shift among a core party base that is more open to ideas that were confined to the radical fringes just years ago.

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is the future of the Democratic Party,” said Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesman for the liberal activist group MoveOn. “Alexandria’s vision for an inclusive, multi-racial economy that works for everyone, not just corporate interests is quickly becoming the Democratic Party’s norm.”

But Ocasio-Cortez hails from a deep blue district in Queens and New York City that’s safely Democratic. A similar phenomenon cannot be found in Illinois suburbs, where conservative Democrat Dan Lipinski defeated a liberal primary challenger, or in Indiana or West Virginia, where Senator Joe Donnelly and Senator Joe Manchin coasted to renomination after highlighting their centrist credentials and voting with Trump on numerous occasions.

Perils for 2020 Hopefuls

To win presidential elections, Democrats need to capture a wide swath of voters. But the enthusiasm among liberal groups that make up an increasingly large slice of core Democratic voters means that future party leaders will have to grapple with the left’s platform.

The primary system that selects presidential nominees tends to be dominated by the most motivated of the party faithful and that can have the effect of pushing candidates toward stances at the edge of party orthodoxy. That may play in Democratic strongholds such as California or New York, but the battlegrounds in 2020 will again be states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan where voters shy away from ideological extremes.

Republicans were quick to portray Ocasio-Cortez’s win as a sign that Democrats are the party of the left.

"The energy in the Democratic Party is self-avowed socialists,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said Wednesday during a Politico Playbook event. “I think it’s a general election problem for them in a number of places and a real drag on the party.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi rejected the idea that Democratic socialism is rising in her party. "It’s ascendant in that district, perhaps," she said during a press conference Wednesday. "Our party is a big tent, our districts are very different."

National Ambitions Can Be Blinding

Crowley’s defeat is a cautionary tale for lawmakers of both parties. He fell into a similar trap that toppled Eric Cantor in 2014. Much like the former GOP House majority leader, the Democrats’ fourth-ranking House member was widely seen among colleagues as an eventual leader of the party — a potential speaker in the foreseeable future, even. Much like Cantor, Crowley’s national ambitions steered his focus away from his district, and he paid the price.

“You get up here and you tend to spend too much time focused on the bubble” said Republican Representative Dave Brat, who unseated Cantor. “After I won members said, thank you I’m going to spend more time in my district.”

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