Holding a gold microphone and wearing a seafoam-green pantsuit, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez energized the San Antonio crowd with her vision for flipping the state of Texas to Democratic control.
“It will happen,” Ocasio-Cortez said at a rally earlier this month. “The only question is when, Texas.”
As the crowd cheered, she added: “The work that you put in today, the work that you put in tomorrow, the work that you put in on Monday – when you go one more door when you’re tired, when you make one more call when you feel exhausted, you’re bringing that day one day sooner.”
The progressives in the audience roared in response, hanging on to her every word.
Four years after bursting on to the national political stage with a shocking primary victory over a long-serving House Democrat, Ocasio-Cortez is using her substantial political influence to promote progressive candidates and policies. Ocasio-Cortez’s first campaign in 2018 was largely dismissed as a pipe dream, but the leftwing New York congresswoman is now impossible to ignore.
Just this month, the New Yorker interviewed Ocasio-Cortez about the fight for voting rights and her role as a progressive icon, while the editors of New York magazine are releasing a book documenting her rapid rise in Democratic politics. As she makes headlines, Ocasio-Cortez has continued to use her massive social media following and her significant campaign war chest to advance her leftist policy agenda.
With Democrats bracing for a potentially disastrous midterm season, the congresswoman’s actions on the campaign trail and on Capitol Hill make it clear that she will continue to be a dominant force for the progressive movement. There seems to be no question now: AOC is here to stay.
On the trail
Ocasio-Cortez travelled to Texas this month to campaign for two of the progressive candidates she has endorsed this election cycle, Jessica Cisneros and Greg Casar. Since her first victory in 2018, Ocasio-Cortez has used her celebrity status to help other progressives attract voters and raise money, which she has a unique talent for. During the 2020 cycle, her campaign committee raised more than $20m.
“Having her there on stage with you, it just is an amazing experience,” said James Thompson, a former congressional candidate who held a 2018 rally with Ocasio-Cortez in Wichita, Kansas. “The immediate impact on my campaign was fundraising. We raised a substantial amount of money off of the rally that we had here. It really energized the people.”
An endorsement from Ocasio-Cortez has the ability to immediately elevate a progressive candidate’s campaign, and the congresswoman does not limit herself to open-seat races. In the four years since she won her own primary against the then congressman Joe Crowley, Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed a number of candidates who are challenging sitting lawmakers. Cisneros, for example, is attempting to defeat Henry Cuellar, a Democrat who has served in the House since 2005.
“AOC endorses more primary challengers to incumbents than pretty much anyone who is a current incumbent in Congress,” said Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for Justice Democrats, which backed Ocasio-Cortez’s first campaign. “I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that she was the primary challenger to an incumbent, so she knows personally how difficult it is to get support for something that requires that level of courage.”
But Ocasio-Cortez’s willingness to openly oppose Democratic incumbents has rankled some of her House colleagues who have been on the receiving end of her criticism.
“This election is taking place in the 28th congressional District of Texas – not New York City,” Cuellar’s campaign said in a statement ahead of Ocasio-Cortez’s rallies in San Antonio and Austin. “The voters will decide this election, not far-left celebrities who stand for defunding the police, open borders, eliminating oil & gas jobs, and raising taxes on hard working Texans. Members should take care of their own district before taking failed ideas to South Texas.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s rallies in Texas also displayed her singular ability to enrage her Republican critics, who swiftly denounced her suggestion that the traditionally conservative state would inevitably move to the left.
“If AOC thinks for a moment that Texans will fall for her whacked-out, woke, socialist idiocy, she doesn’t know Texas,” said Dan Patrick, the state’s lieutenant governor.
But to Ocasio-Cortez’s many admirers, her frequent clashes with Democrats and Republicans alike have set an example for a new kind of politics.
“She’s been an inspiration, I think, to a lot of people,” Thompson said. “Now, I think that scares the hell out of the Democratic party though, too, because we’re bucking the establishment and saying, ‘Look, we want you to represent the people, not just party interest.’”
In the halls of Congress
Ocasio-Cortez’s willingness to clash with members of her party extends beyond the campaign trail to her work in Congress.
Earlier this month, she pursued the bold strategy of trying to force a vote on a bill to ban members of Congress from trading stocks. The House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, had voiced opposition to the proposed ban, and Ocasio-Cortez’s tactics seemed aimed at forcing the hand of Democratic leadership. (Pelosi has since struck a more open-minded tone about the ban on members’ stock-trading.)
Ocasio-Cortez has also been unafraid to criticize some of her centrist colleagues who have attacked progressive policy proposals. On Friday, after Axios published a report suggesting moderate Democrats blamed the party’s falling polling numbers on progressives and their support for the “defund the police” movement, Ocasio-Cortez hit back over Twitter.
She argued the real reason behind Democrats’ bleak prospects in the midterm elections was the party’s failure to pass the Build Back Better Act, the $1.75tn spending package at the heart of Joe Biden’s economic agenda. Ocasio-Cortez accused her centrist colleagues of tanking the legislation by allowing the bipartisan infrastructure bill to pass on its own, leaving Democrats with nothing to campaign on.
“They don’t know how to accept responsibility so are lazily blaming the same folks they always do,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Rahna Epting, the executive director of the progressive group MoveOn, similarly dismissed claims that Ocasio-Cortez and her allies are dragging down Democrats’ electoral prospects as “utter nonsense”.
“Members of Congress of the progressive flank have raised expectations on Democrats broadly to deliver and prioritize people over profits. There is nothing wrong with that,” Epting said. “What Democrats need to do is to stop the infighting.”
Epting, whose group was one of the only progressive organizations to endorse Ocasio-Cortez during her 2018 primary battle, praised the congresswoman for using her platform to advocate for important issues including student debt relief and the climate crisis.
“AOC’s superpower is to expose and shed light on corruption and injustices that have been longstanding,” Epting said. “I think she has been one of the most electrifying members of Congress, probably in the history of the United States. And she’s a true champion for people.”
But Ocasio-Cortez will be the first to admit that her hopes of enacting meaningful progressive policies have suffered setbacks in recent months. Build Back Better remains stalled in the Senate because of Democrat Joe Manchin’s opposition, and the party has failed to enact national voting rights legislation.
Instead of bemoaning congressional inaction, though, Ocasio-Cortez has urged patience.
“We have a culture of immediate gratification where if you do something and it doesn’t pay off right away, we think it’s pointless,” she told the New Yorker. “There is no movement, there is no effort, there is no unionizing, there is no fight for the vote, there is no resistance to draconian abortion laws, if people think that the future is baked in and nothing is possible and that we’re doomed.”
Thompson has seen the long-term impact of Ocasio-Cortez’s work for himself. He lost his 2018 race, but since then, the politics of Wichita have shifted. Democrats now make up a majority of the Wichita city council, when they previously only held one of seven seats.
“Even though I didn’t win, her coming really energized our local Democrats in our community,” Thompson said. “It made us realize that look, we’re not alone. And we can do something when we come together.”