The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez isn’t running as a fire-starter

On one side of the screen was the challenger, accusing her opponent of being “MIA” and ignoring the needs of her congressional district. On the other side was the incumbent, talking about her bipartisan work in Congress and her alliance with Joe Biden.

It was a very new experience for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“I’m very happy to have the support of my colleagues in the New York delegation,” the 30-year-old member of Congress said in her first televised debate last month. “I’m very happy to work very, very well, and collaborate a lot, with our fellow members.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking 2018 win over a member of House Democratic leadership turned her into one of the party’s most recognizable faces. Insurgent candidates around the country — right and left — compared themselves to “AOC.” But the congresswoman is now fending off an expensive primary challenge June 23, with opponents hoping to blunt the popularity of “democratic socialism” by limiting her to one term.

She is campaigning for reelection less as a fire-starter than as an attentive member of Congress. After co-hosting a rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) in Queens, she made only a few trips to support his presidential bid in swing states, wary of criticism for leaving the district and of letting her reelection campaign falter.

“It’s about balancing all of those things,” Ocasio-Cortez told The Washington Post in March, before traveling to Michigan to rally with Sanders. “You’re spinning so many plates in the air, and sometimes you just have to kind of go between them and make decisions.”

Three of the four congresswomen who make up the “squad,” a term both liberals and Republicans have embraced, have primary challenges. Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib faces a rematch with Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, whom she defeated narrowly in 2018, while Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar is facing attorney Antone Melton-Meaux, who has chastised the incumbent for getting “distracted fighting with Donald Trump on Twitter or even with their own party.” But they have raised less money than Ocasio-Cortez’s challengers, and her primary comes first.

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Ocasio-Cortez faces three Democrats in the primary, including a well-funded challenge from former CNBC host Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, who accuses the freshman congresswoman of being distracted by celebrity and national politics. That might be a difficult sell. A poll conducted last month for the campaign by Celinda Lake, who also worked with Ocasio-Cortez in 2018, found the congresswoman’s favorable rating at 79 percent, and with 73 percent support in the primary. Lake said Ocasio-Cortez is stronger in the district than when she polled then-Rep. Joseph Crowley in 2018. (Ocasio-Cortez declined an interview request.)

“People were more interested in change, and there was a constituency that felt neglected. And that just isn’t there now,” Lake said.

In an interview, as in the first debate, Caruso-Cabrera portrayed the congresswoman as fame-obsessed and divisive, focusing on her vote against the Cares Act and her opposition to an Amazon headquarters in New York City.

“She says it’s because she cares about people, but that’s an insult to every other Democrat in the House of Representatives,” Caruso-Cabrera said. “They didn’t care about people when they voted the way they did? I am about jobs. I’ve always been about jobs, affordable and accessible, health care and unity within the Democratic Party.”

But Ocasio-Cortez, who is a co-chair of Biden’s climate change task force and has said she will vote for him after campaigning for a chief competitor, has defended her ability to work within a party she sees as broad.

“When people say ‘divisiveness’ and all of this stuff: Listen, not all Democrats are the same,” Ocasio-Cortez said in the debate. “Some Democrats believe in not protecting immigrant rights. Other Democrats believe that we should subsidize big pharma and health-care corporations. I’ll be very honest about that. But we come together, too.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s key team from 2018 has largely moved on to other efforts to move the Democratic Party to the left. The new campaign has emphasized Ocasio-Cortez’s work for the district over her work to change the party. Wary of how her opponents wanted to portray her as a celebrity, or an absentee congresswoman, the campaign tested those arguments and found few voters believing them. With the pandemic preventing the sort of mass grass roots canvassing that helped her win two years ago, Ocasio-Cortez focused on community relief.

“Ocasio-Cortez 2020 has created a grass roots machine, mobilizing over 2,600 unique volunteers during the covid-19 crisis to make over 250,000 community check-in calls, over 70,000 texts, distribute over 32,800 masks and deliver over 3,000 meals,” said the campaign’s current press secretary, Ivet Contreras.

As of March 31, when the candidates last filed with the Federal Election Commission, Caruso-Cabrera had raised $1.1 million, more than triple what Ocasio-Cortez raised before her 2018 win, though much of it is earmarked for a general election. The incumbent had raised nearly $8 million, and already spent close to $5 million of it.

Caruso-Cabrera brought resources and some name recognition into the primary and used the first all-candidate debate last month to unload on the incumbent, in terms Ocasio-Cortez once applied to Crowley. The former CNBC host repeatedly called Ocasio-Cortez “MIA” and emphasized that she briefly stayed in Washington, not the district, when she had a minor illness. And the challenger rarely mentioned that incident without referring to a “luxury apartment over a Whole Foods.”

In May, she scored a high-profile win by challenging the signatures Ocasio-Cortez submitted for the Working Families Party’s ballot line. That did not stop the third-party group from supporting Ocasio-Cortez in the Democratic primary, but it produced embarrassing headlines about a grass roots congresswoman fumbling campaign basics. Like Ocasio-Cortez, Caruso-Cabrera has devoted resources to covid-19 relief, arguing that she has been more active in the district, with no national distractions.

“Her district is the hardest hit in the country, and yet she didn’t come home,” Caruso-Cabrera said, focusing on the brief period when Ocasio-Cortez stayed in the D.C. apartment. “Day 1, I started delivering food and hand sanitizer. She was on the sidelines. I was on the front lines.”

Yet the race has not shaken out like the 2018 primary, when Ocasio-Cortez successfully portrayed Crowley as unfocused on the district. Stories about tension between her and other members of Congress have disappeared; Rep. Grace Meng, who represents much of Queens and won with Crowley’s backing, has praised Ocasio-Cortez for being “on most if not all of the calls” related to the pandemic response.

Caruso-Cabrera did not have roots in Queens or the Bronx, and was on record criticizing Democrats from the right; in a 2010 book, she called to “get rid of Social Security and Medicare altogether.” While the local and national Chamber of Commerce have helped her campaign, Ocasio-Cortez has used that to portray the challenger as an interloper.

“We just think she’s the whole package,” said Scott Reed, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s political director. “We’ve done a number of events with her on Zoom for our members, for our donors, for our corporate givers, and she just charms the birds right out of the tree.”

Ocasio-Cortez has continued playing in other primaries, though she has picked them more carefully than 2018, when she flew to Hawaii for a challenger who won just 6 percent of the vote. Of the seven candidates endorsed by Courage to Change, the PAC she launched in February, only two faced Democratic incumbents. Both of them — Illinois’s Marie Newman and Texas’s Jessica Cisneros — were also backed by Emily’s List, which focuses on electing women but rarely clashes with the party establishment.

Inside New York, where challengers frequently cite the congressman’s 2018 race as a model, there is less left-wing nervousness about Ocasio-Cortez’s chances than about how to win more seats. Ocasio-Cortez has pointedly not endorsed strategic challenges in other New York City races. In the 16th district, which neighbors Ocasio-Cortez’s 14th district, she has not intervened in Jamaal Bowman’s challenge to Rep. Eliot L. Engel, who has faced the same “absentee” criticism Crowley once did.

In the 15th district, she has endorsed Samelys Lopez, a friend and ally she met while volunteering for Sanders. But some on the left fear Lopez, who had struggled to raise money, will split progressive votes and create a path for Rubén Díaz Sr., a conservative Democrat who calls himself “the opposite of AOC.” A poll conducted recently by Data for Progress found Díaz Sr. leading the field with 22 percent, followed by left-wing city councilman Ritchie Torres at 20 percent. Lopez, despite the high-profile support, came in at 2 percent.

“Too often people get excited about someone because of their social media clout without recognizing that they have very little chance of winning,” said Sean McElwee, the New York-based founder of Data for Progress. “[Progressives] didn’t take Diaz Sr. seriously enough.”

In recent days, Ocasio-Cortez has been absorbed by the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd. On Tuesday night, she called in to a radio show hosted by Rev. Al Sharpton, not as the main guest, but as one of several members of Congress updating New Yorkers on what was happening, and what they could do.

“The solutions here have got to be systemic,” she said. “This needs to be a wholesale restructuring of justice in America.” Later that night, she tweeted that she was heading to a protest that police had halted on the Manhattan Bridge. It did what not many statements by freshman members of Congress can: It made national news.