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How Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat a veteran politician

Jul. 4, 2018
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“I want to confess,” Stephen Colbert admits to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez at the top of their interview last Thursday, “I did not know who you were on Monday."

She smiles, taking it in stride. “Most people didn’t.”

Ocasio-Cortez has been a fixture in the national news since Tuesday, when she won the Democratic primary election in New York’s 14th District. This ended the congressional career of 10-term incumbent Joseph Crowley. The number-four Democrat and a contender to replace Nancy Pelosi as speaker if the Democrats win majority in November, Crowley had been in office since Ocasio-Cortez was in elementary school. The American public—and the Democratic party—are trying to understand what happened. 

There are three prevailing theories: Ocasio-Cortez’s identity motivated a minority population that does not regularly vote; Ocasio-Cortez ran a highly organized campaign and engaged in the community more than her opponent; Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is symbolic of a much bigger shift further left in the Democratic party. 

To say that her working class, Latina identity solely motivated her victory is a bit of a slight in the eyes of Ocasio-Cortez. “It would be a huge mistake to just say that this election happened because X demographics live here. That is to absolutely miss the entire point of what we just accomplished,” she said in an interview Wednesday. Her district—whose residents are over 70% people of color—had been re-electing a white representative for fourteen years. 

The next theory, that Ocasio-Cortez ran a better campaign, is more realistic. Her campaign used various forms of social media, and boasted a simply shot campaign ad that spoke to Ocasio-Cortez’s motivations in the race. While the Crowley campaign outspent her 18-1, Ocasio-Cortez spent much of her early campaign doing local meetings in people’s homes. That face-to-face time is a strong voter motivator.

Many are point to Ocasio-Cortez’s success as a larger shift in the Democratic party, one away from the moderates and fiscal conservatives that used to succeed. It seems that young minority voters are more willing to climb on board an increasingly liberal ideological train. As Progressive Change Campaign Committee co-founder Adam Green told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, "What's being proven is the best way to maximize a Democratic wave is to field a new class of younger, diverse economic populists who can genuinely connect with voters and reflect their lives, instead of corporate, conservative Democrats.” Ocasio-Cortez self-identifies as a “Democratic Socialist.” When asked what that means in her Colbert interview, she defined it as “[believing] that in a modern, moral, and wealthy society, no person in America should be too poor to live.” Economic pressure mounting, the millennial generation is excited at the prospects of free public university and Medicare for everyone (two examples she gave in the Colbert interview).

Her background, her ability to inspire voters in her community, and her status as a “millenial democrat” have gotten Ocasio-Cortez to the general elections in November. She is projected to win. Now, it is in the hands of New York District 14.