AOC's first congressional endorsements reflect subtle shift away from outsider status

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. (Photos: Andrew Harnik/AP, J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

It was seemingly an offbeat choice for the first endorsement by the leader of the Democratic insurgency heading into a presidential election year, when New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez threw her support behind Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., last week.

In some ways it was a team player move, even an establishment move.

Markey is a 73-year-old incumbent, and AOC’s announcement was part of an effort by Markey to roll out as many endorsements as possible, to demonstrate that the party is with him and not with his 38-year-old challenger, Rep. Joe Kennedy III.

Furthermore, Markey’s pressure campaign leaned most heavily on the argument that a run by Kennedy — who plans to announce his candidacy this coming Saturday — would be harmful to the party.

However, Ocasio-Cortez didn’t throw in with Markey to minimize intraparty friction. She endorsed Markey for ideological reasons. He was her chief partner in the Senate’s push for her climate change legislation, the Green New Deal, and Kennedy was not an immediate supporter of that initiative. AOC called Markey a “proud and strong progressive champion.”

Stephen O’Hanlon, a spokesman for the Sunrise Movement, a climate change activist group, argued that it “makes sense that he is one of the first people Rep. Ocasio-Cortez endorsed.”

“Ed Markey has been a powerful champion for progressive ideas for decades and has been one of the foremost leaders fighting for the Green New Deal,” O’Hanlon told Yahoo News.

Nonetheless, Ocasio-Cortez came to power by defeating an incumbent Democrat and has been aligned with progressives who believe challenging Democratic officeholders in primary elections is central to reforming the party.

On Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez issued another endorsement, this time of a challenger to an incumbent congressman: activist Marie Newman, who is running against eight-term Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill. A spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez declined to comment about internal deliberations over the sequencing of her endorsements.

But backing a primary challenger over an incumbent was more “on brand” — as one Democratic activist put it — for AOC.

Her endorsement of Newman was also ideological. Lipinski is one of the most conservative Democrats in the House. But it wasn’t that provocative a move either. Newman has also been endorsed already by other Democrats. In 2018, when she ran against Lipinski and narrowly lost, she was backed by two Illinois Democrats: Rep. Jan Schakowsky and then-Rep. Luis Gutiérrez. This year, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren have both endorsed Newman.

Marie Newman and Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill. (Photos: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images)

The last week for Ocasio-Cortez fits into a larger pattern for her, in fact. The 29-year-old celebrity lawmaker made it to Washington by defeating a powerful incumbent, 11-term Rep. Joe Crowley. Yet now her endorsements could be seen as part of her evolution from upstart anti-establishment firebrand to D.C. legislator, a shift she appeared to acknowledge in an interview published on Wednesday in the New York Times.

“It’s not just about being an activist,” Ocasio-Cortez told the Times. “It forces you to grow. So it doesn’t mean you don’t endorse activists, but it also requires an assessment for a capacity of growth and how you navigate a space like this.”

Ocasio-Cortez entered Congress closely aligned with the Justice Democrats, a group that made challenging incumbent lawmakers part of its core purpose.

“We at Justice Democrats have a chance to really transform the Democratic Party. Running in competitive primary elections in Democratic-held seats is important,” Alexandra Rojas, the group’s executive director, said in a videotaped conversation with Ocasio-Cortez, released at the beginning of this year.

“We want to keep doing Democrat vs. Democrat primaries ... because it’s a way to move the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction and make Democrats more accountable to their base and not just corporate donors,” Justice Democrats spokesman Waleed Shahid said at that time.

But over the past few months, two of Ocasio-Cortez’s top aides — both co-founders of Justice Democrats — have departed from her congressional staff, and the Times reported that she has reduced her public appearances with Justice Democrats while making more of an effort to boost incumbent House Democrats in swing districts.

That’s a major shift in emphasis, away from enforcing purity in safe Democratic congressional districts and toward the goal of holding and expanding the Democratic majority in the House by winning over voters who may be more moderate or conservative.

It’s a sign that Ocasio-Cortez is listening more to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and less to groups like the Justice Democrats.

However, Ocasio-Cortez took issue with the framing of the Times story, saying that the piece showed “dripping condescension that I’m being ‘educated.’”

“There will always be powerful interest in promoting the idea that the left is losing power [one] way or another,” she tweeted. “The big way they try to dismantle the left isn’t to attack it, but to gaslight & deflate it.”

In a way, her Markey endorsement may have checked the boxes that matter most to Ocasio-Cortez. It allowed her to be more of a team player, but also demonstrated her commitment to pushing for progressive priorities on a big issue like climate change.

And on Thursday she took direct aim at Kennedy’s attempt to position himself as a future-oriented candidate simply by virtue of his youth.

“Sen. Markey is the generational change we’ve been waiting for,” Ocasio-Cortez told reporters.

Going forward, her endorsements will only be watched more closely to see which way they signal she is going in the ongoing battle between insiders and outsiders, establishment and insurgents.

Rep. Joe Kennedy III, D-Mass., campaigning for Elizabeth Warren in Manchester, N.H., on Sept. 5. (Photo: Cheryl Senter/AP)

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