Ocasio-Cortez, allies are taking on the Midwest

Consider Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s travel schedule.

Over the past two weeks, the aggressive new voice of the progressive left has crisscrossed the Midwest, making a stop in Kansas to campaign alongside Bernie Sanders as well as solo trips to Missouri and Michigan to stump for insurgent candidates hoping to follow in her path.

That Ocasio-Cortez consistently finds herself hundreds of miles from the Bronx and Queens, where in June she stunned the political world by unseating the fourth-ranking Democrat in the House, shows just how important the next several weeks are for the movement she has come to represent.

Beginning with contests in those three states on August 7, and continuing on for nearly five consecutive weeks after that, progressive outsiders will test their mettle against establishment Democrats in elections from Hawaii to Delaware and Massachusetts.

Success in any of these races has the potential to not only shape the 2018 field but embolden a future crop of progressives — and signal a shift further to the left within the Democratic Party. On the flip-side, a shutout would stifle — or at least put on hold — any suggestion that the party’s moderates are facing an existential threat from their left flank.

Campaigning for Michigan’s Abdul El-Sayed, who is vying against the odds and conventional wisdom to become the country’s first Muslim governor, Ocasio-Cortez explained the core electoral assumption underlying the movement.

“Our swing voter is not red-to-blue,” she said at a stop in Flint. “Our swing voter is the voter to the non-voter, the non-voter to the voter.”

In an interview later, she all but dismissed the existence of a persuadable center.

“I don’t think that swing voters decide based on how much a candidate has run to the middle the most,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I know people who are swing voters, and when I think about how they decide, they don’t say, ‘Oh I’m voting for this person because they became the most Republican out of the whole race to earn my vote’ … Expanding the electorate is the path.”

It’s an argument that progressive candidates and operatives have been trying to make to skeptical Democratic Party leaders for the past few years.

Ocasio-Cortez, her team and allies are clear-eyed about the math and the narrative perils. Most of the candidates now riding her wave of national attention are considered long shots. But so was she.

Even then, losses do not always equal defeat, she argued, pointing to James Thompson in Kansas’ 4th Congressional District to make her case. In 2016, Republican Mike Pompeo won the seat by 30 points. Thompson fell short, as expected, in 2017’s special election but the result was a shock to the system — he had come within 6 points of winning.

“He, as a progressive, alone turned that seat from an impossible race to a flippable district,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “He lost that race last year, but does that mean that his work was pointless? Absolutely not, because now we’re queued up in 2018 to potentially take the seat … I’m hoping that even if a candidate doesn’t win in this cycle, they will have created gains for 2020, for 2022.”

Against the odds

As recently as June, before Ocasio-Cortez struck her signature blow, the insurgency seemed destined to claim its successes further down the ballot, and mostly out of the national political conversation. But that changed when 10-term incumbent House Democrat, Rep. Joe Crowley, offered his public concession.

Ocasio-Cortez immediately began telegraphing her next steps and indicated that growing her own lonely ranks was a priority.

“My hope is that I’m not the only one. My hope is that I won’t be the sole standard-bearer and that’s a big part of doing this whole tour,” she said of her primary season itinerary. “I mean, I don’t know if I’d call it a tour, but that’s the whole point of supporting other progressive candidates because I shouldn’t be the spokesperson. No one person should be the spokesperson for an entire movement because a movement by definition is a collective. And so I am just one perspective.”

Hours after her own win, Ocasio-Cortez quoted Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley and called on supporters to “vote her in next.” House candidate Cori Bush in Missouri and Florida’s Chardo Richardson — both of them, along with Pressley, challenging sitting Democratic House members — also got a shout.

There were more, headlined by the 33-year-old doctor from Michigan: El-Sayed.

On July 2, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted that the state was “blessed to have @AbdulElSayed as a candidate for Governor, and I am proud to support him.”

She could hardly be accused of glory-hunting. El-Sayed had consistently polled in third place behind the frontrunner, former state Senate minority leader Gretchen Whitmer. He also trailed the self-funding millionaire Shri Thanedar, a political wild card who was the first of the three to hit the airwaves.

“They said I wouldn’t be welcome here,” Ocasio-Cortez said upon arriving in Grand Rapids on Saturday, a wink at the pundits — some of them elected, like Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth — who have suggested the region might be off-limits to her leftist politics.

An upset for a candidate like El-Sayed, with his detailed plan for statewide single-payer health care and open disdain for corporate campaign cash, won’t end the conversation, but it would brush back the movement’s critics while boosting its leaders.

In the meantime, El-Sayed insists to reporters and supporters that the bad poll numbers are simply the product of bad polling. The momentum, he says, is his. History, too. Sanders won here despite trailing heavily in the run-up to the 2016 presidential primary.

The Vermont senator, who endorsed El-Sayed last week, will rally with him on Sunday. But the buzz surrounding his events with Ocasio-Cortez required no spin. The Sanders coalition, especially with the New Yorker in town, seemed to be showing itself off again.

For the true-believers on the left, El-Sayed’s case is a special one — a necessary fight for a movement committed to distinguishing itself from the party’s moderates, even if it ends with fat lips all around.

“(Sanders) inspired people to believe in his message because they knew he wasn’t bought by corporations, because he wanted to actually solve the problems that they face,” El-Sayed said in an interview somewhere between Grand Rapids and Flint. “He wasn’t proposing halfway measures, and he was able to inspire them, and we’re doing exactly the same thing.”

He struck the note again hours later, telling supporters, “Every day I get somebody who comes up to me and says, ‘I’ve never registered to vote, not even once, and I literally registered to vote for you: so don’t let me down.’ That says something about this electorate.”

The frontrunner — and an afternoon in church

While El-Sayed has struggled to squelch Thanedar, who despite a lack of bona fides has tried to claim the progressive mantle, Whitmer seems on pace to win the nomination — and knock the progressive surge back on its heels.

Unlike her opponents, the former state legislator would not pursue a short-term move to single-payer health care. News that officers from the PAC run by the state’s largest insurer, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan, promoted to employees a Whitmer fundraiser earlier this year led El-Sayed, who has forsworn corporate PAC money, to quip at a debate that he’s “not bought off by the folks like Blue Cross Blue Shield.”

“First of all, it’s a phony attack,” Whitmer said early Saturday evening, during a quick break from knocking doors in Detroit’s Indian Village neighborhood. “And secondly, it’s extremely sexist to say that a woman is beholden to her father’s former employer … 84% of the record-breaking money that we raised in this campaign is from Michigan. Eighty-two percent of it is $100 or less.”

Her father, Richard Whitmer, was the president and CEO of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan from 1988 to 2006. Though his name never came up during the weekend, the connection colors every mention of the insurer.

Susan Demas, a Democratic strategist and the former editor and publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, attributes Whitmer’s lead in the polls to the good faith she established with liberals during her time in the legislature, when she helped deliver the votes on a deal to increase Medicaid to 680,000 people and took a lead role in opposing the state GOP’s “right-to-work” law. Years before the #MeToo movement took shape, Whitmer made headlines when she spoke out publicly about being sexually assaulted in college.

“One downside to Abdul really hitting the Blue Cross argument is that he keeps tying it back to (Whitmer’s) father and that really offends a lot of progressive women,” Demas said. “There’s always a risk when you go strong with an argument and I think, although it’s probably won him some of those progressive Bernie Sanders voters, it’s not helped him pick up votes with traditional Democratic women.”

In Ypsilanti on Sunday, inside the packed and sweltering Brown Chapel AME Church, that less traditional Democratic woman, Ocasio-Cortez, was greeted — again — with rapturous applause.

A call to volunteer, before El-Sayed and she spoke, had a revival feel to it — stand up, be counted, pledge some time and be celebrated.

“The only way is to move forward,” she said, after being introduced by El-Sayed. “We have to decide if we’re going to change for the worse or change for the better. Because the status quo is not an option anymore.”