Just one month ago, a heretofore unknown player emerged on the political scene: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. At just 28, she is running for the United States House of Representatives, and barring some wild occurrence, should win in November and become the youngest woman to do so. Ocasio-Cortez led an unlikely primary campaign against a top Democratic leader, Rep. Joe Crowley. Crowley was a ten-term incumbent, and had been a likely candidate for speaker if Nancy Pelosi fell short of the requisite votes in a Democratic House. Pelosi won’t have to worry about Crowley coming for her gavel anytime soon, though.
What some may not know is that her victory came in a very low turnout primary election. Ocasio-Cortez captured 15,897 votes to Crowley’s 11,761. That’s a healthy margin, but the district has about 700,000 people in it. Though she will go on to be their Congresswoman, only 2% of the district actually picked her over Crowley. That’s not to minimize her victory at all — a win is a win. But to glean from this single election that the entire party ought to adopt the Ocasio-Cortez or Sanders platform is a stretch. Additionally, this candidate, unknown two months ago, has now sprung onto the national stage. I think there are two different reasons for this.
First: the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. The Bernie Sanders wing, which now has one more member in Ocasio-Cortez, has sought more legitimacy within the party since the fierce primary between Sanders and Clinton in 2016. Pair that with the perception that Clinton was anointed as the nominee, and her eventual loss to Trump, and one can see where the liberal wing of the party is convinced that a new type of Democrat ought to take the reins. Ocasio-Cortez and her victory over one of the old guard confirms this narrative for progressives.
On the other side of the aisle, Republicans are gleeful that Ocasio-Cortez is sucking up all the oxygen right now. The idea that Democrats are a party full of socialists is not a new talking point for many, if not all, Republicans, but now there is more proof positive. Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, among a growing number of others, are unflinching and outspoken about their political beliefs. Ocasio-Cortez is a member and activist in the Democratic Socialists of America, and she is now a very public member of the Democratic Party. What’s more, the Sanders / Ocasio-Cortez duo is barnstorming across the Midwest, evangelizing their left-wing message. This only adds validity to Republican crowing about Democrats lurching leftward.
Becoming a party of Democratic-Socialists is not a panacea for Democrats. While Ocasio-Cortez might work well for her district, something far more important than ideology won her election: hard work. She started organizing for Bernie Sanders during his presidential run, and channeled those skills in her own campaign. She recruited volunteers, she knocked on hundreds if not thousands of doors, and she got out the vote. Joe Crowley did not. The upshot for Democrats across the nation is not to adjust their ideology, but to adjust their work ethic. When turnout is high, Democrats win.
Kirk Kovach is a native North Carolinian interested in writing about politics, communication and culture.