Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Is Driving New Energy And Money To Progressive Candidates

After defeating a Democratic Party boss, she’s a new kingmaker -- and even the establishment wants in.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic nominee for New York's 14th Congressional District, appears on "Meet the Press" on July 1, 2018.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic nominee for New York's 14th Congressional District, appears on "Meet the Press" on July 1, 2018.
NBC NewsWire/Getty Images

At a Democratic gubernatorial candidate forum in Detroit on Monday, progressive underdog Abdul El-Sayed knew just the thing to get the crowd going.

“Who here has heard of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?” he asked.

Had they ever. More than 600 miles away from Ocasio-Cortez’s district, the crowd of several hundred Michiganders roared with excitement.

“She showed us that when we are honest about our message, when we are truthful about where our money comes from, when we are willing to speak clearly about the policies we believe in, and we are willing to stand up to the establishment, we win elections,” El-Sayed continued.

El-Sayed, a 33-year-old former Detroit health commissioner and first-time candidate, is one of a lucky handful of left-wing contenders basking in the power of Ocasio-Cortez’s sudden stardom. Earlier in the day, Ocasio-Cortez had used her massive Twitter platform to endorse El-Sayed. He has since picked up an additional 2,500 Twitter followers and is awash in national press inquiries.

Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old former Bernie Sanders organizer who just a few short weeks ago was scolding establishment Democrats on Twitter for ignoring her campaign, now has 600,000 followers hanging on every 280-character missive ― far more than the typical rank-and-file member of Congress.

And those same establishment Democrats are now knocking on her door. A little over a week since her upset of Joe Crowley, the Democratic Party boss of Queens County, Ocasio-Cortez finds herself as an unlikely kingmaker.

She’s used her newfound power to boost the political fortunes of a slew of candidates ― most but not all of whom are backed by the Justice Democrats, a group that played an integral role in Ocasio-Cortez’s bid and is dedicated to unseating corporate Democrats.

But there are also signs establishment Democrats are hoping her newfound fame can boost the party’s general election fortunes as well ― EMILY’s List and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) have both reached out to Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign. (Gillibrand congratulated her on the phone the day after the big win.)

Democratic strategists believe an email signed by Ocasio-Cortez would be an instant moneymaker, and that her endorsements and campaign stops could help drive progressives to the polls in November.

“She represents the future of our party,” Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez said Wednesday morning on “The Bill Press Show.”

In addition to El-Sayed, Ocasio-Cortez has given the nod to nine congressional candidates: Delaware Senate challenger Kerri Harris; Kaniela Ing in Hawaii’s 1st Congressional District; Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts’ 7th; Brent Welder in Kansas’ 3rd; Cori Bush in Missouri’s 1st; Chardo Richardson in Florida’s 7th; Sarah Smith in Washington state’s 9th; and Linsey Fagan in Texas’ 26th.

She’s also sent a fundraising email for incumbent Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), the only member of Congress to endorse her bid, and used her list to plug a trio of insurgent New York candidates ― gubernatorial challenger Cynthia Nixon; state attorney general hopeful Zephyr Teachout; and state Senate contender Julia Salazar.

The Ocasio-Cortez bump, these campaigns say, is noticeable almost immediately.

“From the second she tweeted my name, everything changed.”

- Cori Bush, Democratic candidate, Missouri's 1st Congressional District

Brent Welder, a labor attorney and former Sanders campaign organizer, touted Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement in an email fundraiser and tripled his weekly fundraising haul from about $17,000 to well over $56,000.

From a simple Ocasio-Cortez tweet blessing his bid, Kaniela Ing, a 29-year-old state lawmaker and fellow member of the Democratic Socialists of America, has seen his Twitter following double. His campaign quickly raised nearly $10,000 in small contributions online. Cori Bush, who is challenging 10-term Rep. William Lacy Clay in Missouri, said she had raised between $17,000 and $18,000 in the past week. She spent last Tuesday texting with Ocasio-Cortez, and was jubilant when she won.

“I cried for hours. I mean, literally, for hours,” Bush said. And the subsequent endorsement has helped her campaign: “From the second she tweeted my name, everything changed.”

Closer to Ocasio-Cortez’s base in Queens and the Bronx, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Nixon raised $25,000 in the 24 hours after Ocasio-Cortez’s election for her primary challenge to Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) and got 1,200 more email signups; in the week since, she’s picked up 30,000 more Instagram followers. For her part, Salazar scooped up more than $20,000 last week ― triple the amount she raised in the previous week.

And the boost is going beyond money. Ayanna Pressley, a Boston city councilwoman whose challenge to Rep. Mike Capuano (D-Mass.) bears at least a superficial resemblance to Ocasio-Cortez’s bid against Crowley ― though Capuano allies have been quick to point out the differences ― saw volunteers flood in last week from Providence, Worcester and Martha’s Vineyard, her campaign said. And the day after Ocasio-Cortez’s win last Tuesday, El-Sayed did his first national TV hit ― a primetime interview with Chris Cuomo on CNN.

For her part, Kerri Harris, a military veteran and nonprofit leader taking on three-term incumbent Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), raised $15,000 last week ― nearly as much as she had raised in over four months of campaigning up to that point. Her Twitter following grew five-fold and volunteers have come out of the woodwork.

“While people were excited [before], they were also like, ‘I don’t know. We don’t want to waste our vote.’ And now they’re raring to go!” said Harris, who drove up to New York City on election eve to volunteer for Ocasio-Cortez.

And in what might be the ultimate sign of Ocasio-Cortez’s appeal, candidates with no ties to her are trying to grab onto her coattails. Ammar Campa-Najjar, a progressive running in Southern California’s 50th District, has invoked her victory in Facebook ads, as have House candidates in Kansas, Washington state and Minnesota.

As the number of candidates seeking Ocasio-Cortez’s support grows, however, decisions are likely to get harder for the celebrated candidate and her allies. An endorsement from Ocasio-Cortez is essentially cost-free, but for Justice Democrats, who staffed her campaign in the final months, investing money in a race is a tougher call.

Corbin Trent, executive director of Justice Democrats, knows that all too well. About a year ago, Justice Democrats concluded that the best use of their resources would be to go “all in” for Ocasio-Cortez. They finally implemented the decision at the beginning of this year, shifting scarce money and staff to her campaign ― and disappointing some of the other candidates they had endorsed in the process.

Now Trent estimates that Ocasio-Cortez is capable of raising $2 to $3 million more to support other like-minded candidates.

“We still can’t help everybody,” he said. “Everybody’s gonna get a little bump, but I think we got enough juice right now to win two or three more races this cycle.”

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