Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

AP Photo/Mark Lennihan

How Did Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Pull Off Her Upset?

June 27, 2018 - 2:15 pm
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880/AP) -- Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 28, is the talk of the political world after she upset 10-term incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley (D-New York) in Democratic primary in the 14th District, which includes sections of Queens and the Bronx.

Politico New York’s Jimmy Vielkind explained to WCBS 880’s Steve Scott how Ocasio-Cortez, a relative political newcomer, knocked off one of the top Democrats in Congress.

“Energy – energy and mobilizing young voters and first-time voters, and a belief that despite the odds, and despite all the levers of power being in Crowley’s corner, she could work a campaign, she could advance an agenda, she could work a message – and she showed exactly why elections matter in the state,” Vielkind said.

Vielkind noted that Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was more than just the defeat of a longtime incumbent in Crowley.

“(Crowley) was one of the top Democrats in leadership in the Congress of the United States. People were talking about him as a potential speaker of the House at some point, and he was also the chairman of the Queens County Democratic Party – this which he’s held for more than a decade. And being the party chairman means that you have all the regular apparatchiks to do things like circulate nominating positions, do your legal work, assist with fundraising. It gives you a platform and access to resources,” he said. “Ocasio-Cortez had none of those things.”

Instead, Ocasio-Cortez built a challenge with the support of grassroots groups – some of whom she worked with on the Bernie Sanders 2016 campaign, and others in the Democratic Socialist movement, Vielkind explained.

“She is a proud member of the Democratic Socialist wing and the New York City Democratic Socialists. So speaking to issues that resonated, working tirelessly, and frankly, perhaps, catching Crowley a little bit off balance and a little bit off guard, all contributed to her surprise victory,” he said.

Political consultant Hank Sheinkopf told WCBS 880’s Peter Haskell that Ocasio-Cortez’s victory amounted to a political earthquake.

“This should be a warning for incumbents at every level. The electorate is angry,” Sheinkopf said. “We have an angry electorate nationally that is both angry at Democrats and angry at Republicans.”

The question remains, Vielkind said, as to whether Ocasio-Cortez’s victory might be a harbinger of things to come for the Democrats or a symbol of a greater “throw the bums out” sentiment in politics.

“Already on Wednesday, my reporting has indicated a split among the Democratic Party hierarchy – people like House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Gov. Andrew Cuomo say that there were local dynamics at play here in Ocasio-Cortez’s district,” he said. “They talked about how Crowley had been more settled in the Washington, D.C. area than he has been in the Queens-Bronx district that he has represented. They talked about the ethnic factors – how a majority of the district’s residents are people of color, and how Ocasio-Cortez, as a Latina and the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother, resonated with that community – perhaps in a way that Crowley did not.”

Cynthia Nixon, who is challenging Cuomo for the Democratic New York gubernatorial nomination, endorsed Ocasio-Cortez on Monday. Her aides and campaign are now embracing Ocasio-Cortez to propel their own message forward.

“They are hoping that this shows energy among the more liberal wings of the Democratic Party, and that that energy can translate into electoral wins. It’s not just a protest. It’s a win. It’s not a symbolic victory. It is a victory,” Vielikind said. “So they’re taking heart and showing that everything that is deemed as ‘impossible,’ quote-unquote, by the pundits, is not necessarily impossible; that it’s very possible, and that their own quest for victory is hardly quixotic.”

Cuomo told WCBS 880’s Rich Lamb he is not spooked by Ocasio-Cortez’s upset. He said he does not believe Nixon is likely to capitalize successfully on Crowley’s defeat by a political novice.

“I think it's apples and oranges,” Cuomo said. “This was a minority community, largely, in this district that is afraid; that is angry; that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez did a very good job of connecting with. They should be afraid and they should be angry, and they saw her as a natural representative.”

Cuomo also said Ocasio-Cortez ran “a very good campaign.”

Ocasio-Cortez will face Republican Anthony Pappas in the general election. But given the partisan makeup of the district, Vielkind said, she is unlikely to face a major challenge.

“The district has a strong Democratic enrollment edge, so yes, this is one of those districts in New York City where victory in the primary is tantamount to victory in the general election, absent some outside event like an asteroid strike,” he said.

Speaking on MSNBC Wednesday, Ocasio-Cortez said her father died when she was a teenager and her mother cleaned homes and drove school buses. The candidate worked as a waitress and a bartender so that her family didn't lose their home.

She said it is important to "lay out a plan and a vision that people can believe in" and then stick to that message.

Ocasio-Cortez added that "getting into Twitter fights with the president" is "not where we're going to find progress as a nation."

(© 2018 WCBS 880. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)