Image source: Jeff Stein
By Thomas Kelsall | @Thomas_Kelsall
Last night, the whole of Washington D.C. was put on notice, and the dynamics of the Democratic Party shifted forever.
In a stunning upset, 28-year-old socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Democratic incumbent Joseph Crowley in the primary for New York’s 14th Congressional District.
In November, Ocasio-Cortez will almost certainly be elected to the United States House of Representatives, as the district is one of the safest Democratic seats in Congress.
Crowley is one of the most powerful Democrats in the House and was widely tipped to take over as Minority Leader after Nancy Pelosi.
His campaign for re-election received complete backing from the Democratic Party, and his seat had not been challenged for 14 years.
Most notably, Crowley raised over $3 million from various special interest groups, whereas Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign was only able to raise $600,000 through small donations.
Over 50 elected officials endorsed Crowley, including prominent Senators Chuck Schumer and Kristen Gillibrand, as well as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo.
This is notwithstanding Crowley’s support from 28 Unions and over 20 advocacy organisations including Planned Parenthood and the Sierra Club.
Despite this, Ocasio-Cortez took out 57 per cent of the vote and unseated one of Washington’s most powerful incumbents.
In an animated speech standing on a bar table at her victory party, Ocasio-Cortez said the result has given voters hope.
“Every person out here this evening changed America tonight,” Ms Ocasio-Cortez shouted.
“The message that we sent the world tonight is that it’s not okay to put donors before your community.
“What we proved tonight is that there is still hope for this nation, that is what you have given every person in this country.
“What you have shown is that this nation is never beyond remedy, it’s never beyond hope, it’s never too broken to fix and we are going to rock the world in the next two years.”
The result even caught the attention of President Donald Trump, who tweeted:
So why is this election—which involved less than 30,000 people—so significant?
Firstly, this race showed there is a real constituency for far-left politics in the US and is a huge win for the progressive faction of the Democratic Party.
Ever since Hillary Clinton’s loss in the 2016 presidential election, Democrats have been bitterly divided on what the party’s direction should be.
Many grassroots organisations such as Justice Democrats and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) advocate for a bold progressive vision of America, while the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and a large faction of elected Democrats prefer a more neoliberal, business friendly and centre-left approach to politics.
The sharpest divisions are related to policy, especially universal healthcare, universal education, bank regulation, military spending and campaign financing.
Ocasio-Cortez—a Justice Democrat, DSA member and self-described socialist—represents the first time the grassroots have truly shaken up the Democratic Party, unseating a powerful Washington insider and taking the party’s establishment completely by surprise.
A national Democratic strategist who spoke to ABC said the Crowley campaign never thought they would be beaten, and the party is now concerned about the safety of some of its other incumbents.
“The Crowley team did not raise any red flags or ask allies for help with his primary,” the strategist said.
“No one is safe.”
Secondly, this election may force Democrats to seriously reconsider the way they finance elections.
Polling suggests the vast majority of Americans believe donations by Super Political Action Committees (PAC) lead to corruption, and the Democratic Party is relatively comfortable with accepting money from special interests even if not to the level of Republicans.
Ocasio-Cortez repeatedly slammed Crowley for his acceptance of money from Wall Street, a note which clearly struck a chord with a fed-up constituency.
As Kay Steiger wrote for Vox, this is a huge wake-up call for establishment Democrats who have long accepted this mode of financing as a necessary political tactic.
“Ocasio-Cortez ran decidedly to the left of Crowley, but she also shook up how Democrats go about getting elected,” Ms Steiger said.
“Until now, Democrats have seen big money in politics as simply a deal with the devil that had to be made.
“But if one of Democrats’ top fundraisers and likely successor to Nancy Pelosi can be toppled, perhaps Democrats need to rethink that deal.”
Finally, Ocasio-Cortez is one of the more remarkable political figures in recent memory.
The descendant of a Puerto Rican mother, at 28 she will become the youngest member of Congress in November.
Seven months ago, she was working as a bartender and an educator in Queens, while her family has faced enormous financial struggles due to the 2008 recession and the death of her father.
But a strong desire to run for office, a relentless door-knocking effort and a viral campaign advertisement all contributed to a major political upset, and a life changing moment for Ocasio-Cortez.
The Democratic Party’s shift to the left is now well underway, and while the bitter political infighting between centrists and progressives will continue long into the future, this will be regarded as a landmark moment in left-wing electoral politics.