When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez set out to topple one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress, only one thing was certain: The odds were not in her favor.
On Tuesday night, she beat those odds: The 28-year-old Latina crushed incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in her first run for office—and his first primary challenge since 2004.
Victory in hand, Ocasio-Cortez thanked her supporters and made a prediction. “This is the start of a movement,” she tweeted.
It’s a simple statement that gives rise to a lot of questions.
It’s a big deal that Ocasio-Cortez fought her way to a win in New York’s 14th Congressional District. After all, Crowley is no back bencher. He heads the House Democratic Caucus. There’s been talk of him becoming speaker. He had money. Still, voters looked at that and resoundingly dumped Crowley in favor of a sweeping progressive vision carried by a community activist (and self-identified democratic socialist) half his age.
The Ocasio-Cortez campaign might have been a longshot, but it wasn’t a fluke: In a midterm cycle that’s generated excitement around contests that could elevate female candidates, including women of color, Ocasio-Cortez presented herself as someone not only for, but of, the people of an ethnically diverse district.
She appealed to working class voters by framing her campaign as a chance to break free of centrist compromises and snugly embrace a left-leaning platform: A universal jobs guarantee. Free public college. The end of ICE, for-profit prisons, and corporate money in politics. Her agenda bore more than a passing resemblance to the kind of planks offered by the presidential hopeful she backed in 2016, Bernie Sanders. On the socialism issue, Vogue quoted Ocasio-Cortez as saying, “When we talk about the word socialism, I think what it really means is just democratic participation in our economic dignity, and our economic, social, and racial dignity.” She is a member of Democratic Socialists of America, which describes itself online as an activism group, not a political party, and specifies, “As we are unlikely to see an immediate end to capitalism tomorrow, DSA fights for reforms today that will weaken the power of corporations and increase the power of working people.”
And up against a better-funded candidate, Ocasio-Cortez weaponized her disadvantage in campaign cash by telling voters, “We’ve got people. They’ve got money.” The strategy—and a lot of legwork—carried the day, but it also matters that Crowley represented a district that’s seen big demographic changes since he took office in 1998 and that he’d opened himself up to criticism by sending his kids to school in Virginia, not New York.
While the race involved only one district, two candidates and fewer than 30,000 voters, Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University, told Glamour in a phone interview that the Ocasio-Cortez win suggests Democrats haven’t resolved internal divisions exposed in 2016, when Sanders electrified young progressives by taking on the more moderate Hillary Clinton.
“I do think as far as the party is concerned, [this] particular win signals to establishment Democrats that clearly voters want change,” she said, “and it doesn’t matter how many years or decades you’ve been in office: If there’s a message that resonates with voters, we will vote you out.”
Among insurgents who think they have a winning message, “We’re seeing they’re not waiting for these folks to give up their seats,” Greer said. “They’re coming to take it.”
Tracy Sefl, a Democratic strategist who has worked with Hillary Clinton, said it’s better to interpret contests like NY-14 as showing there are more routes to office than there used to be instead holding up any one particular case as the prototype for a win.
“If there’s anything that it all means, it’s that the usual rules, the tried-and-true playbook, doesn’t apply [anymore],” she said. “That has been true since the day Trump won the election.”
Strategist and commentator Symone Sanders, who worked on the Bernie Sanders campaign, contended that what happened Tuesday night in New York and elsewhere shows the party doesn’t need to pressure candidates to soft-pedal why they’re running: “You can be a progressive person, and stand in your truth and in your values, talk about those things on the campaign trail, and if you’ve got a good ground game, you can win,” she said.
As to the idea that Crowley tanked because he “didn’t look like the district anymore, that’s just not what it is, because he has done really great work, and he should, in fact, be commended,” Sanders said. “But the fact of the matter is, there were new voters who were primed and ready for someone to speak to them, and the other candidate spoke to them. So she won.”
Some analysts saw Tuesday’s outcome as a rejection not just of Crowley, but of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and the direction of the party itself. There was some evidence to support the theory: Pelosi rushed to burnish Crowley’s legacy—and minimize his defeat—in a post-primary statement that specifically celebrated his “relentless determination to defend the inclusive America symbolized by the Statue of Liberty.”
The Democratic National Committee’s official response saluted Crowley too, but also made a point of saying Ocasio-Cortez “represents an important voice in our party and the next generation of Democratic leaders. She is an inspiration, and we know she will be a tireless fighter for working families.”
President Donald Trump made a point of mocking the Democrats as being in a general state of “turmoil.” While the president also took a personal jab at Crowley, it’s not hard to see the political utility of suggesting the opposition can’t get it together.
The Republican National Committee’s reaction to the vote, meanwhile, offered a preview of a double-edged attack designed to slime establishment Democrats as too extreme for mainstream America: “If there was any doubt that their party has moved drastically to the left, Democrats just elected a self-avowed socialist over the current Chair of the House Democratic Caucus.”
Asked by Glamour whether the optics of Ocasio-Cortez’s great night (and Crowley’s bad one) would reverberate through November, a Democratic Party aide insisted voters in NY-14 came out to make a choice about their own district, “not to send a message about a member of Congress from California, Washington, or anywhere else.”
“As much as beltway insiders may want to try to paint this as a story about Washington, D.C., it’s not — it’s a story about the Bronx and Queens.”