San Antonio — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) didn’t want to get into any “chisme,” she teased from a rally stage on Saturday afternoon. When it comes to gossip about House colleagues, “I generally try to stay out of it,” she explained.
“However, however,” she scolded. Henry “Cuellar decided to put my name in his mouth, so we’re gonna get into it.”
Ocasio-Cortez had come to Cuellar’s district to campaign for Jessica Cisneros, his Democratic primary opponent, and, indeed, Cuellar had lashed out preemptively. “The voters will decide this election, not far left celebrities,” his campaign said in a statement on Tuesday. So Ocasio-Cortez, before a crowd of hundreds packed into a dingy music venue, fired back at the centrist Democrat whose politics contradicted her own.
“A lot of people say ‘Manchin, Manchin, Manchin,’” Ocasio-Cortez said, referencing the West Virginia senator who helped stymie much of his party’s agenda. “But we know it’s not just Manchin. You know who’s helping him? Henry Cuellar.”
Ever since Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise 2018 primary victory over Joe Crowley, progressive primary challengers have been making their cases to voters in the hypothetical. They campaigned on the end of corporate influence, universal health care, and aggressive climate legislation, offering a vision of what a party under progressive influence could achieve if Democrats regained control of Congress and the White House. Prospects looked good when President Biden kicked off his administration with a pair of jobs– and family-focused proposals that approached progressives’ lofty ambitions.
But after a year of unified Democratic rule, congressional sausage-making has shrunk the White House’s agenda. What remains of it hews closely to the demands of the party’s centrist flank. The circumstances laid the cornerstone of a new argument Ocasio-Cortez made as she stumped in Texas on Saturday and Sunday: Centrists failed to meet the moment, and the changes progressives seek require those centrists to be replaced. “It’s about making sure that any blue just won’t do,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “We are sending you to do a job and if you don’t do it, we will send someone who will.”
The Texas primary, on March 1, is the first theater of that fight. Ocasio-Cortez traveled here to campaign for two candidates endorsed by Justice Democrats, the left-wing political group that backed her first run. Jessica Cisneros, a 27-year-old immigration attorney, is in her second run against Cuellar, a member of the House’s corporate-friendly Blue Dog Coalition and one of the last anti-abortion holdouts among federally elected Democrats. Ocasio-Cortez’s other endorsee, Greg Casar, is a former Austin city councilman seeking an open House seat in a district that stretches from the capitol to San Antonio.
Cisneros’ rematch against Cuellar tests Democratic voters’ tolerance for a candidate who slowed his own party’s ambitions in its fleeting moment of power. She came within 4 points of defeating him during the 2020 primary, and now faces him in a newly redrawn district that’s slightly bluer than before. Casar campaign, meanwhile, checks the salience of the progressive agenda in an open field. He has a commanding lead over fellow Democratic primary candidates, according to recent polling, but Ocasio-Cortez called for a “big margin of victory,” hoping to make it clear that centrist candidates don’t stand a chance in deep-blue districts.
There’s also the stakes for the future of the progressive movement. All eyes are on Texas, as the first primaries of the 2022 midterm elections.“No pressure, no diamonds,” she told reporters before the rally began. “We always need to make sure that we are putting ourselves into the lion’s den.”
The contests arrive at a moment of shifting blame in Washington. The Build Back Better Act, Democrats’ party-line social spending proposal, couldn’t find 50 Democratic votes. The push for voting rights stalled amid a GOP filibuster that Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) failed to clear. Long-simmering anger at centrist holdouts has lately met a wave of frustration from moderates who point their fingers at the party’s left flank. They blame progressive lawmakers for demanding an ambitious, expensive agenda and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) for placating the left flank for as long as he did — perhaps, some suspect, to head off a primary challenge from the New York congresswoman who had traveled to Texas that weekend.
Ocasio-Cortez sees matters differently. From the stage, she recalled the deal congressional Democrats cut last year to split President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda across a bipartisan infrastructure bill and the Build Back Better Act. Then, in late summer, a group of nine Democrats “went rogue” and demanded the bill get split apart. “Do you know who’s one of the people who led the pack?” she asked the crowd. “Cuellar!” the group shouted back through a howl of boos.
“If you’re upset about Build Back Better, you can elect Jessica Cisneros,” she said. Ocasio-Cortez returned to Cuellar again during a rally for Casar in Austin on Sunday morning, even though the centrist incumbent isn’t on the ballot there.
Those who attended Ocasio-Cortez’s events over the weekend agreed with her assessment. “I wouldn’t say that we have a majority,” says Natalia Salgado, the treasurer of the Working Families Party PAC who had moved to Texas through the end of the primaries. “The failure to pass Build Back Better revealed the stark difference between a moderate Democrat and a progressive.” Queta Rodriguez, a Cuellar constituent, gasps “Oh, god no!” when I ask if she’d support Cuellar’s reelection, citing his position on abortion as a chief concern. Ciro Rodriguez, who represented Cuellar’s district in Congress from 2007 through 2011, explained his support for Cisneros simply: “¡Ya basta!” he shouted, Spanish for “enough is enough.”
If these candidates succeed, they’ll likely enter the House under circumstances unfamiliar to Ocasio-Cortez and her fellow Squad members: The minority. But the model for Congress’ left flank won’t look so different from this governing moment, Casar told reporters before the rally. “Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has shown that new freshmen members of Congress can make the biggest difference,” he said. Casar cited the way she used her platform to elevate canceling student debt to the Democratic party platform and how fellow Squad member Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) slept on the steps of the Capitol to push the Biden administration to extend the eviction moratorium. “You don’t have to wait decades to move your way up to committee assignments.”