Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic freshmen look to shape party as it takes control of House

Their relative youth, energy and progressive bent raise the specter of future conflict as centrists and liberals fight for control of the party's agenda over the next two years.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands on the steps of the U.S. Capitol with the 116th Congressional freshmen for the member-elect class photo on the Capitol Hill on Nov. 14, 2018.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stands on the steps of the U.S. Capitol with the 116th Congressional freshmen for the member-elect class photo on the Capitol Hill on Nov. 14, 2018.Read moreMelina Mara / Washington Post

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has rapidly emerged as the de facto leader of a historic class of House Democrats whose diversity and ties to the progressive left will shape the party as it targets President Donald Trump and works to clarify its message ahead of the 2020 elections.

Incoming members have quickly exerted their influence on Capitol Hill since the midterm elections, with progressives bolstering Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's, D-Calif., bid for speaker by declining to endorse an opposition movement led by centrist Democrats.

Yet while Rep.-elect Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and her liberal peers have chosen so far not to aggravate the leadership dispute, their relative youth, energy and progressive bent raised the specter of future conflict as centrists and liberals fight for control of the party's agenda for the next two years.

"This is probably one of the most entrepreneurial, innovative and restless freshmen classes that we've seen in recent memory," said former Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., who ran the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. "What I would caution them to do is to keep their eye on who the problem is – and the problem is the Trump administration."

The threat of fresh divisions among House Democrats became clear after Ocasio-Cortez beat Rep. Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, in a June primary in their Queens-based congressional district. The upset drew national attention. Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist, went on to campaign with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for like-minded candidates around the country and to generate a massive following online.

The midterm election produced a powerful class of freshmen Democrats that has been riven by the speakership race, as centrists from red and purple districts express opposition to Pelosi and progressives back her or conspicuously decline to join the insurgents.

Ocasio-Cortez threw support behind the would-be speaker during a recent live video on Instagram in which she told an audience of nearly 5,000 viewers that opposition to Pelosi was coming from her right flank.

She repeated this argument Wednesday on Twitter.

"All the challenges to Leader Pelosi are coming from her right, in an apparent effort to make the party even more conservative and bent toward corporate interests. Hard pass," she wrote. "So long as Leader Pelosi remains the most progressive candidate for Speaker, she can count on my support."

Ocasio-Cortez won her primary after criticizing establishment Democrats for failing to push bold policy solutions to climate change, income inequality and rising health-care costs. She received support from progressive groups such as Justice Democrats, which also endorsed the House candidacies of Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., and Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass.

These three women each broke barriers with their victories – Omar and Tlaib are the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, and Pressley is the first black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts. Together, the incoming freshmen Democrats are historically diverse, with women and people of color making up a majority of the group. Eighteen newly elected House Democrats are under age 40 – three times the number who served this term.

"I think the women who won in the House, particularly Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, are magnificent. They will be heard," said former congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., a co-leader of the Congressional Progressive Caucus from 2006 to 2010.

Woolsey urged the newcomers to embrace Pelosi, who she described as a true progressive.

"She can teach them if they will listen, and she will listen to them," Woolsey said.

While Pelosi has managed to avoid serious opposition from the progressive freshmen, they are expected to put pressure on her to move the House's agenda to the left.

Rep. Jim Himes, D-Conn., who leads the moderate New Democrat Coalition, said the party should be "very strategic to avoid" votes that put pressure on vulnerable centrists. He pointed to the progressive talking point of abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement as unhelpful.

"The thing that annoys me about 'Abolish ICE' is that it became a political liability for some of our most vulnerable members, and it wasn't even a real policy proposal," Himes said. "Why put it out there in a form that makes life very difficult for people in redder areas?"

On the left, Ocasio-Cortez's early criticism of her future colleagues has been celebrated for identifying what some progressives believe their leaders need to encourage to keep momentum – steady, aggressive direct action, even if it makes some people uncomfortable.

Her approach was on full display this month as newly elected members assembled in Washington for the first time since the election.

Within 24 hours, Ocasio-Cortez joined a climate-change protest in Pelosi's Capitol Hill office, conducted a brief scrum with reporters, and drew hundreds of thousands of viewers to Instagram videos about her experiences – from catching up on laundry, to picking secure mobile devices, to touring the Library of Congress.

"Welcome to Hogwarts," she wrote on a video capturing the library's lavish Great Hall.

Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow Democratic newcomers' already sizable fan base among younger voters and voters of color will give particular weight to their endorsements in the next Democratic presidential primary, while their fluency on social media – a radical shift from the staid, prepackaged style used by most politicians – could set the bar for how candidates generate interest and support online.

As the group's most prominent member, Ocasio-Cortez is helping to address the lack of diversity and advancing age of leaders on the left, argued Sean McElwee, the co-founder of the Data for Progress think tank.

"She's a progressive leftist who's not a 77-year-old white guy," said McElwee. "People look at Ocasio-Cortez and they identify with her."

At 29, Ocasio-Cortez is the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, and she has led the way in using social media to cultivate a vast following and to encourage women and people of color to support Democrats.

"The Democrats won the majority by aligning moderate and independent suburban voters with energetic, progressive urban voters," Israel said. "It's got to continue that alignment. It's not one or the other. It's got to be both if they're going to retain the majority in 2020."

Yet being thrust into the national spotlight as a novice politician has had downsides for Ocasio-Cortez, revealing gaps in her knowledge and exposing her delivery and qualifications to criticism.

She once referred to Israel's "occupation of Palestine," drawing swift criticism. She has said the "upper-middle class doesn't exist anymore in America," that "unemployment is low because everyone has two jobs," and that capitalism "has not always existed in the world and will not always exist in the world."

When Republicans pounced on her most recent gaffe – a comment that Democrats must take back "all three chambers of government: the presidency, the Senate and the House" – she urged GOP critics to "actually step up enough to make the argument they want to make: that they don't believe people deserve a right to healthcare."

Ocasio-Cortez uses her social media accounts to spar with detractors but also to introduce followers to other incoming Democrats, building their profiles and bolstering the group's sense of collective identity.

In one recent Instagram post, she called attention to Omar, who wears a headscarf, and her fight against a rule that bans head coverings for members on the House floor.

Candidates who were endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez and lost said that her support nonetheless boosted their campaigns and put them on the national radar.

Kansas attorney Brent Welder narrowly lost a House primary; Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders had rallied for him.

"They're two of the most popular figures in the Democratic Party, and that's because they're grass-roots leaders who stay connected to the people," said Welder. "Democrats need to remember the populist roots of our party."

Welder's loss was more reflective of progressive groups' performance this election: just 11 of the 61 non-incumbent candidates endorsed by Justice Democrats won their primaries.

Left-wing groups have responded with talk of replacing moderate or "out-of-touch" incumbents in safe seats. On Saturday, Justice Democrats announced an #OurTime campaign to find the "next Ocasio-Cortez." Organizers said the initiative would direct resources and attention toward strong candidates who could, like the congresswoman-elect, speak to the party's base without filters.

"To actually build on this, to take back the Senate and White House, we have to merge the electoral side of politics with the protest movement," said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of Justice Democrats. "We've seen the power of electing a grass-roots, working-class leader and having her stand by the movement. It changes the national discourse."

Mike DeBonis contributed to this report.