From New York to Los Angeles, insurgent and outsider candidates latched onto Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, trying to connect to the 28-year-old community organizer and Democratic Socialist who stunned the political world this week by beating the U.S. House’s fourth-ranking Democrat in a congressional primary in New York City.
Ads popped up on Facebook on Wednesday and Thursday, posted by candidates trying win support or raise money off her victory. There was the Egyptian immigrant running for governor of Michigan as a Democrat. The Filipino in Los Angeles running for Congress as a Green. And in New York, there was Cynthia Nixon, the actress challenging Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo for the Democratic nomination with the backing of the Working Families Party.
“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proved it’s possible. If you give people a choice, they will show up and reject the status quo,” the ad said. “Donate to Cynthia Nixon for Governor to keep the momentum going.”
In Connecticut, the Ocasio-Cortez victory nudged the Working Families Party closer towards dropping its neutrality in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor, a contest that the 31-year-old challenger, Eva Bermudez Zimmerman, is trying to make into a proxy for broader questions of racial diversity and generational change.
“The Working Families Party tries to be a home for voters and people who feel like the political system isn’t always designed to include them, and we try to make endorsements that motivate our supporters in that way,” said Lindsay Farrell, the executive director of the WFP in Connecticut.
Farrell said the party, a union-funded group that tries to advance a progressive agenda by cross-endorsing like-minded Democrats and, occasionally, by working on their behalf in primaries, most likely will decide next week whether to help Zimmerman in her race against Susan Bysiewicz, the winner of three statewide races for secretary of the state.
The choice has been problematic for labor. Bysiewicz, 56, who has a good record on labor issues, ended her run for governor to endorse Ned Lamont and become his running mate. Zimmerman unexpectedly won 40 percent of the vote at the Democratic convention, a reflection of a restive party and an expectation that Lamont would pick a minority.
Last week, union leaders at the AFL-CIO convention urged neutrality in the lieutenant governor primary in deference to Lamont, whom they endorsed. But the rank-and-file delegates ignored them, delivering the two-thirds vote necessary for the statewide labor federation to endorse Zimmerman, who has never won an election.
And then came the victory by Ocasio-Cortez, and the struggle over what it meant.
There were competing narratives involving demographics and a thirst for change, regarding race, gender, generation, issues and tactics — especially a willingness to be more confrontational in the Trump era. She ran to the left of U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley, a 10-term incumbent bequeathed the seat by Thomas Manton, described by the New Yorker as the last great boss of the Queens Democratic machine.
Ocasio-Cortez pursued an agenda described as “loony” by the New York Post and endorsed by the Democratic Socialists of America. She sides with Bernie Sanders on health care, calling for Medicare for all. She also wants to establish a federal jobs guarantee and abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The WFP in New York did not endorse Ocasio-Cortez over Crowley, who was preparing to challenge House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi for speaker should Democrats win control of the House in November. But Nixon, the “Sex and the City” television star endorsed by the WFP, stood with Ocasio-Cortez as a fellow insurgent.
The two women endorsed each other, and Nixon featured a picture of her and Ocasio-Cortez in ads posted the day after her victory.
Pelosi, 78, was among those cautioning against drawing too many lessons from Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in the 14th District of Queens and the Bronx. At a televised press conference, Pelosi said, “They made a choice in one district.”
The daughter of working class Puerto Ricans, Ocasio-Cortez undeniably was the beneficiary of demographics. Crowley was a minority in the district, where only one in five residents are white, nearly half are Hispanic and the rest are black. About half are 34 or younger.
Connecticut’s electorate is older, and four in five residents are white. But a few lessons, according to operatives across the political spectrum, transcend the particular demographics of the 14th Congressional District of Queens and the Bronx.
“Elections are about hearts, not minds. Candidates have to excite people and make people believe they are going to do something to make a difference,” said Liz Kurantowicz, a Republican consultant who clients include the state House GOP caucus. “That is the challenge for all candidates to meet, and that’s what happened in New York. And that’s what Eva Zimmerman is aiming to do. That’s what Erin Stewart is trying to do.”
Stewart, 31, the mayor of New Britain, is running for the GOP nomination for lieutenant governor.
Timothy Herbst, 37, one of five Republicans running for governor, said the New York race is reflective of a general wariness about anything and anyone who represents establishment politics. “People just hate the establishment of either party,” he said.
Farrell, the WFP leader in Connecticut, said the Ocasio-Cortez victory says something else.
“It means that voters want and expect a politics that is inclusive of who is in America and about the issues that people care about,” she said. “I think it says something about this internal tug of war in the Democratic Party between a more traditional, established approach and a more progressive, outsider approach.”
The momentum, she said, is with the progressives.
Joe Fox, the manager of Bysiewicz’s campaign, seemed intent on not overreacting to the New York win by Ocasio-Cortez, nor ignoring it.
“I think it means that primary elections have consequences,” Fox said. “And Susan is going to work extremely hard to communicate with every single Democratic primary voter on her strengths as a candidate and what she brings to the ticket, and how she and Ned Lamont will work together extremely well as governor and lieutenant governor for the people of Connecticut.”
Zimmerman is encouraged by the many facets of the Ocasio-Cortez win.
“This just reinforces that people don’t want the average thing. They want change,” Zimmerman said. “It reinforces what I’ve been saying from the very beginning. Yes, it’s great to break that glass ceiling. But diversity comes in different ways. Diversity is not just being brown.”
Zimmerman posted a new Facebook ad seeking campaign contributions this week, but she was not among those who tried to leverage Ocasio-Cortez’s victory into a national fundraising appeal. She is trying to qualify for public financing, and that requires raising most of her qualifying contributions in Connecticut.
Still, she said she felt a connection.
“Organizing prevails. Conversations are key. When you connect to voters, that’s how you make change happen,” Zimmerman said. “In her win, she did the hard work, because she believed in something. I’d love to meet her.”