The future of the Democratic Party is suddenly more clear.
On Tuesday, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old first-time candidate for office and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, defeated the incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, a powerful Queens Democrat and one of his party’s most senior members in Washington. Ocasio-Cortez didn’t just defeat Crowley – she stomped him. With 88 percent of the vote counted, she led by nearly 4,000 votes out of 26,000 cast.
Crowley’s defeat has already been called the Democratic version of then-House Majority leader Eric Cantor’s shock upset loss in 2014 to an obscure economics professor. It’s not a perfect comparison, but it’s useful all the same: Crowley and Cantor were both viewed as potential speakers of the House. Both had close ties to the corporate wings of their parties, especially the finance industry. But while Cantor was caught off-guard by his challenger, Crowley spent big money in the final weeks and months of his primary race knowing that he faced a serious threat.
Ocasio-Cortez represents in many ways the new face of progressive politics growing in strength on the left flank of the Democratic Party. She is a young woman of color whose campaign platform included Medicare for All, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), a universal jobs guarantee, protection for Dreamers and a “clean campaign finance” system. You couldn’t have written a more liberal platform if Bernie Sanders – for whom Ocasio-Cortez worked as an organizer in 2016 – had written it himself. Late Tuesday night, Sanders said in a statement: “She took on the entire local Democratic establishment in her district and won a very strong victory. She demonstrated once again what progressive grassroots politics can do.”
The centerpiece of her message, however, was that working men and women – in New York’s 14th district and elsewhere – were shut out of the political process by wealthy, well-connected lawmakers like Crowley, who has represented the 14th for two decades. She had felt that way herself and hadn’t thought about running until a group founded by Sanders alums, Brand New Congress, recruited her. “I counted out that possibility because I felt that possibility had counted out me,” she told New York magazine’s The Cut this week. “I felt like the only way to effectively run for office is if you had access to a lot of wealth, high social influence, a lot of high dynastic power, and I knew that I didn’t have any of those things.”
In the final days of the primary, Ocasio-Cortez ran a two-minute ad that you’re going to see a lot more of in the coming days. The spot was as good a version of why I’m running as you’ll see and hear in a long time. “I’ve worked with expectant mothers, I’ve waited tables, and led classrooms, and going into politics wasn’t in the plan,” she says over images of New York, of people of color, of people young and old. “But after 20 years of the same representation, we have to ask: Who has New York been changing for?”
The answer, at least according to the majority of the 27,000 people who voted on Tuesday was clear: Not us. And so they voted out one of the most powerful Democrats in Washington and replaced him with a candidate who couldn’t be more different – and who may be the Democratic Party’s future.