WASHINGTON – Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez claimed her seat in the House of Representatives after challenging a long-time incumbent with a message of shaking up the status quo.
Now, she faces her own outsider challenger in the the first electoral test of her Congressional tenure.
The New York Democrat knows the primary process well, as her upset victory over Joe Crowley – a member of House leadership who was thought to be in line for Speaker – allowed her to gain a massive following the 2018 midterm election. She is turn has used that following to champion her progressive ideals, her own legislation and pressure House leadership on major issues over her term.
But the primary Tuesday marks the first test for the freshman and fellow members of the Squad. Three out of the group of four women of color, who over their first two years in office have become some of the most sought-after voices inthe progressive wing, are facing primary challenges ahead of the November election. Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan is on the ballot Aug. 4 and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota is on the ballot Aug. 10.
“Every lawmakers reelection and their race for sophomore year, so to speak, is always the biggest test because it is a test of how deep and long your roots go with the people who are voting for you, and how much you've been able to win and maintain their trust,” said Jon Reinish, a Democratic strategist based in New York, adding that a lawmakers first reelection fight “is always going to be your most intense.”
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Ocasio-Cortez's House race is also one of several primaries where new progressive stars are being forced to defend their seats from fellow Democrats running closer to the center. Her race and others may offer new insight into voters' perceptions of the progressive wing of the party months after progressive icon Sen. Bernie Sanders was bested by a more moderate Democrat, former Vice President Joe Biden, in the presidential nominating battle.
Ocasio-Cortez's rise also has many looking to the district just north of hers on Tuesday, where House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel is facing a fierce primary challenge that has led to a divide among Democrats. High-profile progressives, including Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Ocasio-Cortez, have endorsed his opponent, Jamaal Bowman. Former presidential contender Hillary Clinton and a host of congressional Democrats have raced to back Engel – marking another battle between progressives eager for a win and establishment Democrats seeking to keep the high-level, 16-term congressman in place.
More:Election 2020: Rep. Eliot Engel bashes surging opponent Jamaal Bowman's voting record
Notoriety, feud with Trump plays role
In Ocasio-Cortez’s district, she will face three challengers, including former journalist Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, who has raised about $2 million. Still, Ocasio-Cortez has remained a popular figure in the district and one of the House’s biggest fundraisers with $10.5 million raised.
She, like fellow members of the Squad facing primaries, has been painted by challengers as more concerned with her newfound fame and quarrels with the president than she is focused on constituents in the Bronx and Queens. In a debate earlier this month, Caruso-Cabrera specifically targeted Ocasio-Cortez for being the lone House Democrat who opposed a $2 trillion coronavirus aid package, which offered help for hospitals, increased unemployment benefits, and included up to a $1,200 stimulus check, among other provisions.
“She's a democratic socialist and she's a polarizing, divisive force,” Caruso-Cabrera said during the debate, which was held remotely over video conference. “She is wrong for the times. She is wrong for New York, and she is wrong for our neighborhoods.”
Ocasio-Cortez responded by explaining she was a force behind other pieces of COVID-19 legislation and declined to back the CARES Act in May because it included a “half a trillion dollars in Wall Street giveaways” and did not do enough to help the immigrant community in New York.
She listed a raft of inequalities in her community, including issues related to the coronavirus pandemic, policing and employment, and noted the need for new programs, such as Medicare For All to address health care.
"I have always fought for these issues. I am not new to these issues. I ran on them in 2018," she said during the debate. "Every promise that I made, I have delivered upon and I am proud to have championed our community when the rest of the country wanted to leave us behind."
“Once you're the member, you know, you have a record, you have legislative responsibilities, you have district responsibilities and you are now judged and also can be taken on as an incumbent,” Reinish, the strategist, added. “It’s hard to be both the insurgent and the incumbent and I think that’s what she’s seeing right now.”
It was not Ocasio-Cortez’s first time voting against a key piece of legislation important to the Democratic caucus, an occurrence that over her first term has inflamed tensions between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
She and the three other members of the Squad – Reps. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., Tlaib and Omar – were the lone Democratic holdouts last year on an humanitarian aid package that supplied help for immigrants as the nation grappled with children dying in federal immigration custody.
That vote and Ocasio-Cortez’s signature legislation – the Green New Deal, a sweeping climate change proposal – eventually led to infighting within the House Democratic caucus and a spat with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., where Ocasio-Cortez said Pelosi was being “disrespectful” by continuing “the explicit singling out of newly elected women of color.”
Pelosi had dismissed Ocasio-Cortez’s climate bill as “the green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is” and cast the Squad as House members with a large online following without the same in Congress.
“All of these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world," Pelosi told the New York Times last year. "But they didn't have any following. They're four people and that's how many votes they got."
More:Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Nancy Pelosi meet one-on-one after tension
The pair’s spat was short-lived and Pelosi has endorsed Ocasio-Cortez’s re-election bid.
Fellow Squad members battle to retain seats
Both Tlaib and Omar face serious challengers as well, while Pressley doesn’t have a primary race this year.
The Minnesota district that Omar represents has been turned upside down after the death of George Floyd, who died after an Minneapolis officer knelt on his neck for almost 9 minutes. The death in Omar's district launched nationwide protests and a larger discussion about systemic racism and the use of force by police.
Omar's tenure in Congress – itself historic, as she became one of the first two Muslim women in Congress, along with Tlaib – has also been marked by some controversy, including a heated fight with the president which led to a slew of death threats against her. Republicans and members of her own party also chastised her for comments about Israel they said played into into anti-Semitic tropes. The House passed a resolution condemning hate speech after Omar’s comments.
Her most well-funded challenger, Antone Melton-Meaux, has said the congresswoman was too focused on “being a celebrity” and called her “divisive,” according to Omar's hometown paper, The Star Tribune.
In Detroit, Tlaib is facing a rematch against Brenda Jones, who Tlaib narrowly beat to earn her seat in 2018.
Like her fellow Squad members, Tlaib’s two years in office has also been marked by sparring with the president and some controversy. Hours after she was sworn into office, she vowed to “impeach the mother****er,” which led to the president lashing out on Twitter – the first of several attacks from the president over her first term.
Jones said her campaign was “based on hope.”
“Hope for a better tomorrow, hope for our children, hope for our families and hope for the hopeless," she said. “What I feel is it's important to connect all of the people in the district, regardless of what color they are, what age they are, what job they do."
Contributing: Todd Spangler