Ocasio-Cortez’ New York Clout Reflected in Progressive Victories


The Democratic Party’s progressive wing has broadened its foothold in New York with primary wins by two Black House candidates positioning them to join Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in challenging the centrists who gave Nancy Pelosi a majority.

The victories by Jamaal Bowman, 44, over Eliot Engel in a Bronx-Westchester County district, and Mondaire Jones, 33, in New York City’s northern suburbs to succeed retiring Nita Lowey, reflect a changing of the guard, at least generationally. Engel, 73, and Lowey, 83, are both serving their 16th congressional terms.

A third young progressive, New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, 32, who identifies as Afro-Latino, is leading in a Bronx-based primary to succeed another retiring House veteran, Jose Serrano, as absentee votes continue to be counted. If elected, he would join Jones as the first openly gay Black House members.

Ocasio-Cortez has been the face of progressive insurgency in Congress since her surprise 2018 win over then-House Democratic Caucus Chair Joseph Crowley. While her success is reflected in the New York races, it has yet to expand nationally.

Moderate Districts

“The strong liberals are concentrated in the Northeast and a few other big cities, but elsewhere the Democratic majority in the House depends on the votes of members elected from moderate districts,” said Marjorie Hershey, a political scientist at the University of Indiana in Bloomington.

New York’s primary election voting ended on June 23. But thousands of absentee ballots sent by mail delayed official verification of the wins by Bowman and Jones until this week. Because both districts are heavily Democratic, the primary victories make them almost certain winners in the November general election.

Ocasio-Cortez has made her mark in Washington as an aggressive advocate for progressive initiatives such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, criminal justice reform and addressing income inequality. Three other Democrats elected the to the House in 2018 -- Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan have joined her in pushing for those initiatives, coming to be known collectively as “the Squad.”

Justice Democrats, one of the progressive political action committees that helped Bowman, said in a statement that he is the fourth candidate since 2018 to oust an incumbent with their backing. The group counts Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley among its successes along with Marie Newman, who defeated Democratic Representative Daniel Lipinski of Illinois in a March primary.

The group, however, didn’t mention primary losses by candidates it supported in challenges to incumbents in Ohio and Texas this year, results that political analysts say reflect the limited range of the progressive message.

‘Socialist Rhetoric’

Outside of mostly urban or Northeast areas, “the socialist rhetoric however generally appears ineffective,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a long-time Democratic strategist who didn’t work on any of the three New York campaigns. Still, he said, the defeat by “AOC forces” of a Chicago-based incumbent like Lipinski and the New York progressive victories “increase her power.” But that power doesn’t mean control just yet.

“Any majority party is going to be more heterogeneous than a minority, and encompass a broader range of perspectives because there are just more people,” said Jacob Rubashkin, an analyst with Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter.

Democrats control the House because they flipped so many swing-district seats in 2018 that Donald Trump had carried in 2016, and they need to keep most of those seats this fall to stay in power.

Yet the party is definitely moving leftward, and has been doing so over the last 15 years, Rubashkin said. The House majority is much more liberal than it was when Democrats were in control from 2007 through 2011, he added.

Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow progressives are taking the long view, according to Sheinkopf.

“The future of the Democratic Party looks a lot more like AOC and Jamaal than Joe Biden,” Waleed Shahid, communications director of Justice Democrats, said in a statement Friday. “Biden knows that, and if he enters the White House in 2021, he won’t be governing with the same Congress from 2009.”

“The Squad is here to stay, and it’s growing,” Shahid said.

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