The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The worst thing to be in many Democratic primaries? A white male candidate.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez attributed her victory over veteran Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) to knocking on doors that "had never been knocked before." (Video: Reuters)

The newest star of the Democratic Party, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, launched her New York congressional campaign by declaring “women like me aren’t supposed to run for office” — a jarring embrace of her distinction as a 28-year-old Latina less than a year removed from a job tending bar.

Her campaign slogan: “It’s time for one of us.”

That appeal to the tribal identities of class, age, gender and ethnicity turned out to be a good gamble, steering her to the nomination in a year when Democratic voters are increasingly embracing diversity as a way to realize the change they seek in the country.

Given an option, Democratic voters have been picking women, racial minorities, and gay men and lesbians in races around the country at historic rates, often at the expense of the white male candidates who in past years
typified the party’s offerings. ­Ocasio-Cortez’s opponent, veteran Rep. Joseph Crowley, a
white man representing a ­majority-minority district, fit that bill.

A record number of women were elected to the House of Representatives in 2018. The Washington Post spent time with some of them on the campaign trail. (Video: Alice Li, Sarah Hashemi, Kayla Epstein/The Washington Post)

The divide is more stark than any other so far in the primary season, and it reflects the party’s growing dependence on female and minority voters.

The ideological splits between liberal and far-left candidates were predicted to be the focus of clashes this year, but voters have sent conflicting signals on that front.

The tribal trend has implications for the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, where a historic number of nonwhite and female candidates are considering launching campaigns, including Sens. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) and Cory Booker (N.J.). They will likely face off against a cadre of more traditional white male candidates, including possible bids by former vice president Joe Biden and former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe.

These women have won their primaries. Will they be elected in November?

“The ideological part is only a very small piece. There is something deeper going on,” said Simon Rosenberg, a strategist at the New Democratic Network. “In this new social media age of politics, compelling, authentic candidates who can tell positive stories about themselves are succeeding over lifer politicians.”

At a rally in Nevada over the weekend, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), another potential 2020 Democratic contender who never fails to mention her own hardscrabble childhood in Oklahoma, got cheers when she let slip that she wanted to see a woman occupy “that really nice, oval-shaped room at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”

Many of the key Democratic House primaries this year have been competitions over biography, with a premium given to those who break new ground or remove old barriers. House nominees in key races to unseat Republicans include a black former NFL player turned attorney, a female retired fighter pilot and a lesbian Air Force intelligence officer, all of whom defeated more conventional opponents.

“You don’t want to run against a Democratic woman this year,” Rep. John Yarmuth (D-Ky.) said Wednesday about the trend, citing the House primary in Kentucky won by that former fighter pilot. “Amy McGrath defeated a two-term mayor with a 70 percent approval rating. She did that because she was a fresh face who tapped into the new energy out there.”

This proved the case again in New York on Tuesday, when ­Ocasio-Cortez toppled Crowley, one of the most powerful Democrats in the nation and one widely seen as heir apparent to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi.

On the same night, upstate in the Catskill Mountains, Antonio Delgado, an Oxford- and Harvard-educated African American lawyer, emerged from a crowded field of six white Democratic candidates, some of them more liberal, for the chance to take on Rep. John Faso (R-N.Y.) in one of the most competitive House elections this cycle.

In Maryland, Democrats nominated Ben Jealous, the African American former head of the NAACP, making him the second black gubernatorial nomination this year, following former Georgia statehouse leader Stacey Abrams’s win last month. There have been only two African Americans elected governor in the 50 states in recent history — and at least two more black Democratic candidates, in Florida and Wisconsin, have a chance to win nominations this fall.

Through the end of June, 151 women have won House Democratic primaries, nearly doubling the 81 female nominees at the same point in the 2016 cycle, according to data collected by the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers University. Republican nominations of women rose much more slowly, to 32 in 2018 from 27 in 2016.

“Historically, what we have seen, which could also be true in this cycle, is the association of women with something different, something new and something that represents change,” said Kelly Dittmar, a professor at the center. “In this year, women provide one of the starkest contrasts to the president and the party in power in Washington.”

For some Democrats, there is a clear logic to trying to elevate politicians who belong to underrepresented groups, given the threat many feel from the behavior and policies of President Trump, who regularly magnifies racial division and has been caught on tape boasting about the sexual assault of women.

“It’s not accidental that Donald Trump followed the first black president riding a wave of resentment,” said Steve Phillips, founder of Democracy in Color, a group that promotes youth and minority political activism. “And it’s not accidental that the people who are fighting back are the people who are being attacked.”

Polls show that Democrats generally place a far higher value on racial, ethnic and national diversity than Republicans. A Pew Research survey in late April found that 58 percent of Americans say increasing numbers of people from different groups makes America a better place. That included 70 percent of people who identified with the Democratic Party and 47 percent who identified with Republicans.

Ocasio-Cortez, who calls herself a Democratic socialist, ran on the left edge of her own party, endorsing many of the most liberal policies in circulation, including an abolition of the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Medicare for all, and a program to guarantee government jobs at $15 an hour for all Americans. Crowley, who has his own liberal record and co-sponsored a Medicare-for-all bill, countered by calling ICE “fascist” and saying he wanted reforms without abolishing the agency.

But policy was not the clear dividing line in the race.

Ocasio-Cortez spent much of the campaign, including much of the only one-on-one debate, focusing on Crowley’s decision to take money from corporate donors and raise his kids in Virginia while he worked at the U.S. Capitol. She argued throughout the campaign that Crowley “doesn’t drink our water or breathe our air.”

Two years after Crowley was elected to the state legislature in the late ’80s, Queens County, where he was born, was about 58 percent white, according to the 1990 Census. Today, it is 48 percent white, according to census figures. The district he represents, which includes parts of the Bronx, is 18 percent white.

“I think the district has changed very dramatically, and I think that she, from her ideas to her diversity, I mean she really reflects her district,” Booker said in an interview Wednesday.

The closest analog to Crowley’s downfall was Dave Brat’s unexpected 2014 Virginia primary defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor, a Republican leader seen by many as a future House speaker. But that race, between two white men of similar age and background, hinged on the conservative dispute over immigration and a determination by voters to upset the ways of Washington.

Several of the outside groups working to recruit and train candidates for the Democratic ticket have placed a premium on finding women and minorities. Amanda Litman, co-founder of the candidate training and support organization Run for Something, said candidates who broke the white-male mold were doing better because voters want to support people like themselves.

“The candidates that do the best are the ones who are most representative of their communities, and that’s women and people of color,” she said. “They’re able to represent their voters in an authentic way, much more powerful than gender or any other single factor.”

Maurice Mitchell, national director of the liberal Working Families Party, said electing more diverse candidates was “part of my mandate.”

Earlier this year, he became the first black man to lead the organization, which began as a left-wing political party and has grown into an organizing force for liberal candidates and set out to elect more nonwhite leftists.

“This is where the energy is. This is where our most idealistic thinking and strategizing on the ground is,” he said. “We want to break up the idea that the way you get folks elected is choosing middle-of-the-road white male business owners and veterans to run — people who will only say and do the most scripted things that polarize the least people.”

Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.

Correction: A previous version of this report misspelled the name of former Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe.