Ocasio-Cortez Is a Shoo-In, but 11 Other Hats Are in the Ring

Vivian Wang

NEW YORK — It is hard to imagine a scenario where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez loses her seat next year. She has raised more than $3.4 million, is better known than some presidential candidates and handily won a district that is among the bluest in the nation.

But that hasn’t stopped people — lots of them — from trying to unseat her.

So far, eight Republicans and three Democrats have filed to run for Ocasio-Cortez’s seat in the Bronx and Queens. Two of the Republicans have each raised more than $420,000, even though no Republican has represented the Bronx in Congress in at least 50 years.

The moonshot nature of these candidacies, and the fervor for them regardless — the candidates, in both parties, have made the rounds on Fox News and become darlings of conservative media — underscores the fame and rancor that have surrounded Ocasio-Cortez.

The campaigns also highlight a broader strategy by the Republican Party: turning voters’ resentment toward Ocasio-Cortez into a conduit for the party’s other electoral goals. By encouraging attacks on Ocasio-Cortez, Republicans hope to inspire a trickle-down effect onto lower-profile, but much more vulnerable, Democrats.

“When she’s forced to explain what she stands for and what she has pushed the Democratic Party to embrace from a policy standpoint, that is an electoral boon for Republicans,” said Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee.

A spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez declined to comment.

The chances of an upset remain slim, despite the national attention to the race.

Ocasio-Cortez, with her social media savvy and outspoken advocacy for left-wing policies, has cultivated 5.5 million Twitter followers and a worshipful base of supporters who donated $1.4 million to her reelection bid between July and September alone. She has $1.91 million on hand.

Progressive candidates covet her political blessing; her decision to endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for president in Queens on Saturday was seen as a major victory for his campaign.

But for the challengers, running — even with a near-guarantee of defeat — has few downsides. They can raise thousands off Ocasio-Cortez’s name alone; earn exposure for future campaigns; and bask in the attention, even if only for a short time.

For her part, Ocasio-Cortez has used the swell of challengers as fundraising fodder.

In an email to supporters soon after the Republican candidates’ contribution numbers were reported, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign announced an “emergency goal” of nearly $850,000 — the sum of the Republicans’ hauls — for October. If met, Ocasio-Cortez would be on track to raise more than $2.5 million in the next quarter.

By contrast, in New York’s 15th Congressional District, which borders Ocasio-Cortez’s, only one candidate has raised more than $400,000 in a quarter, even though the race is considered competitive: The incumbent, Rep. José Serrano, a Democrat, has announced his retirement.

It is unclear how much support the challengers to Ocasio-Cortez will receive from their party establishments. Traditionally, state and local parties back incumbents, but Ocasio-Cortez has rankled fellow Democrats with her and her supporters’ unabashed willingness to back primary challenges against longtime officeholders.

In a recent fundraising email, Ocasio-Cortez’s team wrote that ever since her victory, “corporate Democrats have been waiting for their chance to strike back.”

The Queens County Democratic Party — the longtime power base of former Rep. Joe Crowley, whom Ocasio-Cortez defeated — did not return a request for comment on Ocasio-Cortez’s primary challengers.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) arrives for a House Oversight Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., Feb. 27, 2019. (Erin Schaff/The New York

One of the Democratic challengers, Fernando Cabrera, a New York City councilman, said he consulted the Bronx County Democratic Party’s chairman, Assemblyman Marcos Crespo, before announcing his campaign.

“He said, ‘Go ahead and run,’ but I don’t take that as an endorsement,” Cabrera said. “We’re still in dialogue regarding support.”

Crespo, in an interview, said the county party traditionally supported incumbents. “I can’t envision why we would necessarily think differently about the 14th,” he said, referring to Ocasio-Cortez’s district.

On the Republican side, resources may also be scarce, even as party leaders plan to highlight the challengers. In an opinion piece in The Washington Examiner, a conservative outlet, one writer said the national party would be “insane” to put “one ounce of support” into the race, urging donors to focus on winnable districts instead.

McAdams, of the House Republicans’ campaign arm, said it was too early to say where the committee would focus its spending, but that the district would not be on its list of top targets. Still, he said the group was “constantly monitoring” the race.

Nick Langworthy, the chairman of the New York Republican Party, said he had not done any polling on Ocasio-Cortez’s district and had not recruited any of the candidates.

The 11 challengers to Ocasio-Cortez are mostly unknown, and many have no political experience. Some, after filing their candidacies, have raised no money.

But a few have clearly capitalized on conservatives’ fervent hatred of Ocasio-Cortez. John Cummings, a teacher and former police officer, announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination on “Fox & Friends”; he raised $425,000 in 10 weeks, outpacing many sitting members of Congress.

Scherie Murray, a Republican businesswoman and Jamaican immigrant who voted twice for Barack Obama, gave her first interview to Sean Hannity, also on Fox. She raised $424,000, and has more than 140,000 Twitter followers.

Cabrera and another Democratic candidate, Badrun Khan, a self-described activist, have also appeared on Fox News.

The challengers, from both parties, share largely the same criticisms of Ocasio-Cortez. They slam her opposition to bringing an Amazon headquarters to New York City, blaming her for 25,000 lost jobs; they call her too radical to represent the district; and they accuse her of being too focused on building her national profile.

“Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez has done an excellent job establishing a national persona for herself,” Cummings said. “But most of the people who live in the district, even Democrats I’ve spoken to, feel that she’s just not concerned with what goes on here.”

At times, it can seem the candidates are running against Ocasio-Cortez more than they are running for any particular message.

In emails from Cummings’ campaign to reporters, the subject lines do not include his name, describing him only as “AOC opponent.” Murray, in the Twitter post announcing her candidacy, explained her decision succinctly: “There’s a crisis in Queens and it’s called AOC.”

A spokeswoman for Khan said in an email that Khan was not available for any phone interviews for almost a week. (Khan later sent written responses to a few questions.) “Her unusual situation — running against AOC — makes her more visible obviously than other candidates,” the spokeswoman wrote.

“I can state with certainty that this notoriety is not what Ms. Khan is looking for,” she added.

Of course, that sudden visibility, coupled with the low likelihood of success, has only fueled speculation of alternate motives.

Cabrera, who does not live in the district, is barred by term limits from seeking reelection to the City Council, and is rumored to want to run for Bronx borough president in 2021. Congressional candidates are not required to live in the district they represent.

“This is a way to establish relationships with funders, to try to craft a message,” Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University, said of the benefits of running against Ocasio-Cortez.

“This may be a failed mission, but it sets them up to be a known quantity.”

Cabrera denied that he was running to raise his profile. “This is really for the soul of America, and I just couldn’t stand by,” he said.

Of course, Ocasio-Cortez, who just turned 30 and had never run for office before, is prime evidence that conventional political wisdom and party support does not always matter on Election Day.

Langworthy said he could not think of another first-term member of Congress with such a high profile — and that her profile was drawing undue amounts of Republican attention.

“Especially when they see an outsider like AOC running and winning,” Langworthy said of the challengers, “they think, ‘Hey, maybe I can do that, too.’”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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