On Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez announced she’s backing a challenger to a sitting House Democrat, Rep. Daniel Lipinski in Illinois. It’s a roundabout way for Ocasio-Cortez to try to influence those actual votes that Pelosi says she has a handle on, by electing people more in line with Ocasio-Cortez’s worldview.
For one House Democrat to try to oust another is a rare thing in traditional Democratic politics, but not from Ocasio-Cortez’s perspective. She won election by challenging one of the most entrenched Democratic politicians in the House, Joseph Crowley. If there’s one place she has proven to wield significant influence in reshaping the House Democratic caucus, it’s in a Democratic primary. At least, in her own.
After her surprise win in 2018, she promised to help liberal candidates across the country do the same. Lipinski is the first test of her influence outside her own Bronx district.
Lipinski isn’t the most dramatic target in the world for Ocasio-Cortez to flex her strength against. A handful of other House Democrats have supported his challenger in the past because he is so conservative for a Democrat; he opposes abortion rights and votes against bills that the LGBTQ community supports, and he voted against the Affordable Care Act.
In 2018, groups such as the Human Rights Campaign, NARAL, Emily’s List and Planned Parenthood actively tried to oust him by boosting his primary challenger, Marie Newman.
Newman lost that primary by just two percentage points, and she is running again. Enter Ocasio-Cortez, who endorsed her Tuesday. Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) endorsed Newman last week.
These endorsements didn’t come out of the blue. Ocasio-Cortez and Warren seem to be following the lead of Justice Democrats, a liberal group founded by people who worked for the presidential bid of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in 2016 and who actively supported Ocasio-Cortez in her primary. So, she has the backing of an entire structured group and a presidential candidate to help make good on her endorsement.
She would be a little more out on a limb if she endorsed, say, Jessica Cisneros, a primary challenger to another abortion rights opponent, Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Tex.). Justice Democrats and Warren want Cuellar out, too, but she would be the first House Democrat to endorse his opponent. For comparison’s sake, we should note that the New York Times reported in January that she pushed back on an article that said she was trying to knock off Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), a Pelosi ally in leadership. That would have been an extremely bold move, and it doesn’t seem like Ocasio-Cortez is going there.
Still, she’s lending her star power to try to tilt a competitive primary race in Illinois right as the House Democrats’ campaign arm is trying to tamp down any primary challengers to their elected lawmakers.
This spring, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (whose leader is closely aligned with Pelosi) announced that its vendors would need to work with incumbents only; they cannot work with primary challengers. The message from the top was clear: The Democratic establishment won’t tolerate primary challengers.
That led to Ocasio-Cortez to tell her 5.4 million Twitter followers to donate directly to campaigns and circumvent the party's campaign arm.
The DCCC said it would not tolerate infighting, and what it got from Ocasio-Cortez was exactly that. On Tuesday, the DCCC didn’t officially respond. But it has not proven receptive to progressive pressure in the not-too-recent past. In May, the DCCC’s chairwoman, Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), decided not to attend a fundraiser for her Illinois colleague, Lipinski, after getting pressure from progressives that the party was supporting an antiabortion Democrat.
Trying to oust that Democrat is the next logical step in Ocasio-Cortez’s quest to challenge and change the existing Democratic structure. And it’s the first tangible test of her ability to shape the House Democratic caucus since her own impressive primary win.