When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the country by defeating 10-term Democratic incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th congressional district last year, she did so against enormous odds. Not only had she raised just over $300,000—a tenth of the $3 million-plus Crowley had on hand—but the mainstream media had all but ignored her until her upset victory made national news. The night of her primary win, CNN host Brian Stelter admitted he’d only learned of Ocasio-Cortez eight days before.
But one year later, Ocasio-Cortez’s unlikely primary victory appears to be having a multiplying effect, helping to ensure that candidates following in the congresswoman’s footsteps won’t face the same uphill battle. As the media and progressives alike search for “the next AOC,” insurgent candidates are receiving heightened attention and financial support that’s giving them a fighting chance.
More than a year ahead of the 2020 election, every single one of the candidates backed by Justice Democrats, a political action committee that recruits and runs progressive candidates, is in a better financial position than Ocasio-Cortez ever was during her primary run, according to the organization’s most recent financial report.
Ocasio-Cortez herself raised just $60,000 in 2017, the year before her victory. But at a comparable point in their own campaigns, first-timer Morgan Harper, who is challenging Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-OH), has raised $323,000; Marie Newman, who is trying to defeat Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) for the second consecutive cycle, has raised $350,0000; and Jessica Cisneros, the 26-year-old primarying Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-TX) has raised $310,000 in the third quarter, $460,000 in total, and secured key endorsements from the pro-choice political action committee EMILY’s List, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), and Ocasio-Cortez.
"Those key victories that happened in the last cycle inspired the entire nation and showed everyone it’s possible to take on an entrenched incumbent when you’re running a people-powered campaign,” said Cisneros. “That’s something that inspires me every day and shows all of the supporters in our district that we can have that same change here in south Texas.”
“I think the challengers from last cycle showed us what’s possible,” Harper agreed. “I didn’t always realize that without the party’s support and without coming from a political family or a ton of money, you’d be able to launch a viable and very progressive—unapologetically progressive—campaign and win.”
Democratic consultants and polling experts said insurgent candidates have gotten more than just a confidence boost: They also may be tangibly benefiting from the seismic upsets freshman congresswomen like Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) pulled off in 2018, which disrupted traditional ideas about who constitutes a viable candidate. Going into 2020, insurgent candidates can expect to be taken more seriously and earn more support early on from elected officials and national organizations.
“Candidates that might have been considered a ‘long-shot’—such as first-time candidates without deep pockets running against establishment-backed incumbents—two or three years ago now seem viable,” David Duhalde, the lead facilitator for the Winning Primaries coalition, an initiative dedicated to identifying districts ripe for primary challenges, wrote in an email. “Their chances also increase, unsurprisingly, because people once defined as long shots are incorporated into the narrative of people who can—and will—win.”
Those narratives have also been internalized by the candidates themselves, who can better imagine a path to victory after seeing Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, and others make their own way with small-dollar donations and a progressive agenda. Justice Democrats like Harper and Cisneros are running on a platform of Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and a federal jobs guarantee—campaign tenets that not too long ago were considered too fringe for mainstream political discussion.
Even insurgent candidates who lost in 2018 have helped to inspire the 2020 class. Primary challengers like Brent Welder and Abdul El-Sayed fell short of beating incumbents in Kansas and Michigan, respectively, even with the support of Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT). But many of them nonetheless proved to be more competitive than conventional wisdom foretold, and helped push a bold progressive agenda closer to the forefront of the Democratic party.
“Now insurgent candidates who are running on big and bold visionary platforms are being given serious consideration,” said Joe Dinkin, the national campaigns director of the Working Families Party. “I think that the number of Democratic voters who are open to those big ideas has also grown dramatically.”
Even with newfound progressive energy, any victories are far from certain. Next year, Democratic incumbents will still benefit from a number of traditional advantages, such as name recognition, an established donor base, and institutional support.
After 2018, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, the body responsible for helping House Democrats hold onto their seats, instituted a new rule barring political consulting firms from working with anyone who is challenging a sitting House Democrat.
Though many individual consultants and organizations, including EMILY’s List, have openly defied the new DCCC policy, some primary challengers have subsequently faced difficulties staffing their 2020 campaigns. Earlier this year, two consultants left Newman’s campaign because of the blacklist. Suraj Patel, another 2018 insurgent candidate, told the New York Times in June that he’d already been turned down by three firms, who told him they couldn’t help him with a second run.
Still, incumbents have good reason to worry about primary challengers. Last cycle, insurgent and first-time candidates learned that longtime representatives of Democratic strongholds were often absent or inactive in the district, and typically counted on institutional support and corporate donations—not door-knocking or grassroots organizing—to carry them into their next term. “We were completely outspent in commercials and at the mailbox,” Ocasio-Cortez told Jacobin after her primary win. “But we were not outworked in the street.”
Now, insurgent candidates have a roadmap for how to take advantage of those vulnerabilities. Sean McElwee, cofounder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress, said some incumbents appear to be moving to the left to avoid looking “out of step” with the district, which can make them a target of a primary challenge.
“Having a super charismatic woman candidate raise $400,000 in a single quarter sort of makes your life suck,” he said.
If incumbents can’t preempt a primary challenge, McElwee said they may quickly find themselves out of their depth, with few people who can help tailor a new path to victory for them.“Candidates like Joyce Beatty”—the incumbent in Ohio’s 3rd congressional district—“are not going to know who to call to bail them out,” McElwee said.
McElwee said the 2020 cycle has also attracted an even stronger crop of insurgent and first-time candidates, in part because more people are beginning to see challenging an incumbent as a feasible entry point into politics.
“Once Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley showed that it was possible to win one of these primaries … people who had a lot of options open to them for their political careers decided running a primary challenge is no longer a dumb idea.”
Young first-time women candidates will continue to face comparisons to Ocasio-Cortez throughout the election cycle. Cisneros, the first-timer challenging Cuellar in Texas’ 28th congressional district, said it’s important to remember that there’s no one-size-fits-all campaign strategy.
“We do have to recognize that every race is different because every district is different,” Cisneros said. “Your ground game has to adapt to the place where you’re running.”
Cisneros understands that part of the reason she’s been compared to Ocasio-Cortez is because neither are a “traditional candidate.” Both of them are young, Latina, and from working class families. But she hopes one day such comparisons won’t be necessary.
“It’s great to see people excited about folks that don’t fit the typical profile,” Cisneros said. “But the point is to get more of us in office so it’s not a surprise to anyone anymore.”
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