June began with the Democratic midterm wave looking a bit like it might crest well before reaching shore. The RealClearPolitics average of the gap between the Democrats and Republicans in House races was only about three points narrower than it had been at any point so far this cycle. On June 5, Democratic primary races went about as expected, with the party managing to escape the California jungle primary system with candidates able to contest every Republican incumbent in the state. While women kept winning, left-leaning candidates endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) Our Revolution didn’t fare terribly well.
On Tuesday night, though, the revolution saw its first major victory in battle. In New York’s 14th Congressional District, covering parts of Queens and the Bronx, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated the fourth-highest-ranking Democrat in the House, Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.). Being the fourth-highest-ranking member of a House minority caucus is often a bit like being the fourth-best-known member of One Direction, but Crowley was seen as a political powerhouse in Queens. He last faced a primary challenger in 2004 — when Ocasio-Cortez was 14.
It’s easy to overanalyze the ripples from one upset victory, of course. A lot of races so far in 2018 have looked exactly the way one would expect. But it’s worth noting all the ways in which Ocasio-Cortez’s victory looks precisely the way one would expect a Democratic tidal wave to look.
She is a woman. As noted above, women have fared extremely well in 2018 primaries, particularly in Democratic primary races. A record number of women running to serve in the House and Senate had resulted in 130 women winning their primaries before Tuesday night, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. One hundred six of them were Democrats.
She is a person of color. Ocasio-Cortez is the daughter of Puerto Rican parents.
The Democratic Party has grown increasingly nonwhite over the past two decades, according to Pew Research Center data. In 1997, three-quarters of Democrats were white non-Hispanic. By 2017, the party was 41 percent nonwhite.
Last year, Pew estimates, one out of every eight Democrats was Hispanic. The 14th, meanwhile, is nearly half Hispanic. That Crowley, an older white man, would lose in a heavily Hispanic district (after not facing a primary challenger in more than a decade) is less shocking than it might seem from the outset.
She is an outsider. As our Aaron Blake notes, there are significant ways in which Ocasio-Cortez’s victory doesn’t exactly mirror the upset defeat of House Majority Leader Eric Cantor in 2014. But for establishment and incumbent politicians, the prospect of a non-politician coming out of nowhere and scoring an upset is terrifying. Politicians are always keeping a wary eye on the known competition — but if any constituent can make a run at the seat, the calculus goes out the window.
One way Ocasio-Cortez’s win does resemble the Cantor loss is precisely that: Constituents in New York’s 14th decided that a non-politician was a better fit for the district right now than Crowley. Cantor lost to Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.), a college professor.
She is a staunch leftist and socialist. Ocasio-Cortez worked as an organizer for Sanders’s 2016 presidential Democratic primary bid, but her ties to the party’s left wing are far more robust than just that. Her campaign platform was decidedly progressive, including Medicare for all, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, free college tuition and a universal jobs guarantee.
An Ocasio-Cortez campaign spot that was widely viewed articulated her politics — with a perhaps unexpected overlay of campaign polish.
She organized. Ocasio-Cortez combined the factors above into a campaign that was well-suited for the race she was running. She didn’t raise a lot of money, but most of what she raised came from donations of less than $200.
After she won, social media lit up with stories about Ocasio-Cortez walking precincts in her district and appealing to voters who normally don’t attract a lot of attention. She herself highlighted one example.
She also organized media attention in a very effective way. Going into Tuesday night, hers was certainly the challenge to a Democratic incumbent in New York that had received the most national attention, a function of her close relationship with progressive activists and her campaign’s ability to leverage social media effectively.
There is an important way in which Ocasio-Cortez’s victory didn’t look like other surging Democrats this year: Turnout. In many races, we’ve seen a surge in Democrats coming to the polls, helping to flip once-red districts to blue under the sheer weight of new Democratic voters.
But there, too, Ocasio-Cortez seems to have enjoyed an advantage. That turnout was modest in the 14th District meant that Ocasio-Cortez’s energized base could punch above its weight. Crowley’s connections to the machine politics in Queens appear not to have been as effective at getting people to vote in a low-turnout election as Ocasio-Cortez’s approach.
As should be clear from the description above, a lot of stars aligned in Ocasio-Cortez’s favor, helping propel her comfortable victory over Crowley. How many other Democratic challengers can muster the same success is hard to predict. [Another challenger in New York, for example, came about a thousand votes shy of ousting Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.).]
What makes Ocasio-Cortez notable is precisely that combination of ways in which she embodies precisely the sort of candidate who Democrats might expect to take out a powerful incumbent.
President Trump, for his part, seems to have seen her victory as somehow good news for him.
The Democrats, he then tweeted, are “in turmoil.” While Ocasio-Cortez’s victory may have been something of a perfect anti-incumbent storm, her win certainly hints at energies in the party that earlier this month seemed as though they might be dissipating.
If Trump believes that Crowley’s loss demonstrates Republican strength in 2018, he should remember how much Brat’s win in 2014 foretold good news for the Democrats that November.