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We’re about to find out if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s message works in “Trump Country”

On Tuesday, progressive candidates who’ve earned Ocasio-Cortez’s stump of approval will face primaries in Kansas, Michigan, and Missouri.

by Carter Sherman
Aug 7 2018, 3:04pm

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has spent the weeks since she toppled the No. 4 Democrat in the House trying to prove that progressive politics can thrive, even in so-called “Trump Country.”

Now, it’s time to find out if she’s right.

On Tuesday, progressive candidates who’ve earned Ocasio-Cortez’s stump of approval will face primaries in Kansas, Michigan, and Missouri. Many are going up against more centrist Democrats, supported by long-standing, well-monied Democratic institutions. These elections provide perhaps the first widespread test of whether a victory for a Bronx-born democratic socialist is a harbinger of a nationwide wave of progressive politicians.

Here’s what you need to know about each primary.

Kansas

The fight over the chance to challenge Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder for Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District is, on its surface, a crowded one. Voters will technically have the chance to vote for six Democratic candidates on Tuesday, according to records from the Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets. But the primary will likely come down to just three challengers: labor lawyer Brent Welder, former White House fellow Sharice Davids, and local history teacher Tom Niermann.

Last month, Ocasio-Cortez teamed up with Vermont Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders to stump for Welder and another progressive running for Kansas’ 4th Congressional District, James Thompson. After Ocasio-Cortez tweeted her endorsement of Welder, he raised about $50,000 from around 2,000 online donations, Politico reported.

But Welder, who’s further left than Davids and Niermann, is facing local criticism for pushing for policies like free college and student loan forgiveness, without providing much explanation about how he plans to pay for it all.

“Someone has to pay the bill, and Welder has been vague about funding his ambitious proposals,” the Kansas City Star editorial board wrote on Friday, in an op-ed that handed the paper’s endorsement to Davids.

Davids is backed by EMILY’s List, the powerful political advocacy group that aims to elect women who support abortion rights. The organization’s super PAC, Women Vote!, reportedly dropped almost $400,000 on an ad supporting Davids in July. And her supporters tend to play up the fact that a victory for Davids would make national history. As a member of the Ho-Chunk Nation, she’d be the first Native American woman elected to Congress. She’d also be one of the country’s few openly gay lawmakers (and Kansas’ first-ever gay member of Congress).

Polling on the race is scarce, but a look at the candidates’ war chests reveals some clues: As of mid-July, Davids had gathered about $344,000 in donations, according to Open Secrets. But Welder racked up about $677,000 — which doesn’t include any corporate donations. At $723,000, Niermann’s out-fundraised both his opponents.

"It's the first contentious primary for Democrats with an uncertain outcome in Kansas, period," Patrick Miller, a University of Kansas political science professor, told CNBC. "Republicans are losing in races where they outspent absolute nobodies by incredible margins. Yoder can't afford to take the re-election for granted."

Michigan

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congressional candidate from New York, waves with Michigan Democratic gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed during a campaign event in Detroit, Saturday, July 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez also swooped into Michigan to champion Abdul El-Sayed, who’s running to become the first Muslim governor in the United States. Like Ocasio-Cortez, he’s running on an unabashedly progressive platform, such as raising the minimum wage to $15 and defunding Immigrations Customs and Enforcement (ICE). Yes, he’s also vowed to forgo all corporate money.

But national progressives’ support for El-Sayed may not make much of a difference in this race. Polls have consistently predicted a win for former state lawmaker Gretchen Whitmer, sometimes by as many as 20 percentage points. Still, she’ll likely face a tough general election, since Michigan went purple in the 2016 presidential elections. (Trump won the state by just 10,704 votes.)

Whitmer can count some big Democratic players among her supporters: New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan, and EMILY’s List, which gave $66,000 to her campaign. But Whitmer’s also taken money from corporate PACs, according to the Center for Michigan.

Whitmer is far from a centrist Democrat though. She's perhaps most famous for fighting against a 2013 state bill that would require women to purchase additional insurance to cover abortion, even in case of rape; in a speech against the bill, she revealed on the state Senate floor that she’d been raped in college.

Missouri

Cori Bush speaks on a bullhorn to protesters outside the St. Louis Police Department headquarters in St. Louis, on Sept. 17, 2017. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson File)

When Ocasio-Cortez won her primary, she gave a shout-out to another longshot, progressive candidate: Cori Bush, who's running for Missouri’s 1st Congressional District against Democratic Rep. William Lacy Clay. (He's been in Congress since 2000.)

"After Alexandria's victory speech, the donations hit harder, and it just gave us a jolt," Bush, a Ferguson activist who unsuccessfully ran for a Senate seat in 2016, told Broadly. "It definitely changed our race."

Bush — who Ocasio-Cortez later joined on the campaign trail — espouses the now-standard progressive ideals, like a $15 minimum wage, abolishing ICE, and, once again, rejecting corporate money while raising about $138,000. (Clay has about $407,000 in the bank, including around $26,000 from literal banks, according to Open Secrets.) If Bush wins the general election, she’d be the first black woman to go to Congress from Missouri.

Clay, on the other hand, thinks he’s a progressive. But he also knows that the goal posts for the label may have shifted further left. “I don’t know what the new litmus test is, and I’m really not sure if I can pass that according to some,” he told the New York Times.

Despite little available polling, local experts predict the race will likely be Clay’s closest primary contest yet. They also think the incumbent will emerge victorious on Tuesday.

“Ultimately, Congressman Clay’s operation is so well-aged. It produces well and he can flip the switch and drive voters out,” Brian Wahby, former Democratic Party chairman for St. Louis, told Roll Call. “So I think that will ultimately be the difference.”

Cover image: Kansas congressional candidate James Thompson, left, U.S Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congressional candidate from New York, stand together on stage after a rally, Friday, July 20, 2018, in Wichita, Kan. (Jaime Green/The Wichita Eagle via AP)