National News

Yes, She Is in Kansas: Ocasio-Cortez Takes Her Message to the Heartland

Posted July 21, 2018 1:55 p.m. EDT

WICHITA, Kan. — Less than four weeks after she stunned the political establishment with an upset victory in a New York House primary, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stepped out onto the national campaign stage for the first time Friday, an emerging star of the insurgent left bringing her message to the heartland.

She joined the white-haired lion of the progressive movement, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., for two rallies for House candidates in Kansas districts that Democrats hope to wrest from Republicans in the fall.

“Change takes courage,” she told a packed auditorium at a downtown convention center here. “Change takes guts.”

“What you have shown me, and what we will show in the Bronx, is that working people in Kansas share the same values — the same values — as working people anywhere else,” she said.

It was a message that had carried Ocasio-Cortez, 28, to victory in New York last month and all but assured her election to Congress in a heavily Democratic district in Queens and the Bronx. And whether establishment politicians like it or not, Ocasio-Cortez, a democratic socialist, is now rushing to transport her unapologetically left-wing message to other parts of the country.

On Friday she shared the energy with the 76-year-old Sanders, who came on stage after her to deafening cheers, telling the crowd, “Whether you live in Vermont or the Bronx or Kansas, we share common hopes and aspirations that are much greater than the superficial differences that may separate us.”

But even those who came primarily to see Sanders were aware of Ocasio-Cortez and her message. Many had seen her on social media and television and said they were inspired by her youth and enthusiasm.

Nicholas Beddow, 25, a preschool teacher wearing a vintage “Bernie for President” T-shirt, said he hadn’t heard of Ocasio-Cortez until she won her primary, but now was a full-throated supporter. “She’s very strong,” he said.

The fact that she is young, he said, “carries the progressive message further.”

He said he felt that message could resonate, even in an area labeled the Bible Belt. “I’m thinking we can give it a blue buckle right in the middle,” he said.

That could be a tough sell in a state that hasn’t sent a Democrat to Congress in a decade. But Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders were campaigning here and in Kansas City, Kansas, on Friday in support of two candidates, Brent Welder and James Thompson, who are running progressive, grass-roots campaigns in districts Democrats consider winnable. She is also planning campaign stops in the coming days in Missouri and Michigan.

The trip to Kansas is a critical test for whether she and her Bronx-born brand of Democratic socialism resonate in the heartland — and whether she is overplaying her hand.

In the weeks since her primary victory, Ocasio-Cortez has publicly endorsed a flurry of candidates across the country. On Twitter and in interviews with the media, she has championed a progressive policy agenda that includes Medicare for all, tuition-free public college, ending private prisons and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

While she has quickly become a political sensation, however, she has also revealed her inexperience. She provoked some outrage by referring to Israel’s “occupation” of Palestine, for instance, saying later that she was “not the expert on geopolitics on this issue.” She incorrectly said unemployment was low because “everyone has two jobs.” And on Saturday, in a move that risks alienating Democrats in the House even before she arrives on Capitol Hill, she plans to campaign in St. Louis with Cori Bush, who is running to unseat Rep. William Lacy Clay, a popular nine-term Democrat and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Still, her appearance in Kansas alongside Sanders was the clearest indication yet that she views herself as one of progressivism’s next ambassadors — and that far-left Democrats, at least, see her as a key player in the party’s effort to retake the House.

“If there was a better way to say it’s the highest, the best, the No. 1 event we’ve ever had, I would,” Thompson said in an interview the day before Friday’s rally. If candidates can show that even Kansas “can be changed running on progressive principles,” he added, “then it’s possible anywhere.”

Later Friday, in another convention center some 200 miles away, Ocasio-Cortez again worked to fire up an enthusiastic, sweaty crowd on a humid night, speaking with more confidence than she had in the afternoon.

“They told me that a message of health care, education and housing stability wouldn’t resonate in Kansas,” she said. “But we know that that’s not true.”

“We know enough to reject the stereotype that people in the Midwest do not care about their brothers and sisters,” she said.

Conservatives in the state have taken notice of the support for progressive ideas that Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders have championed. Earlier this week President Donald Trump tweeted support for Welder’s Republican opponent, Kevin Yoder. And Thompson’s opponent, Ron Estes, the incumbent, sounded the alarm on the Wichita rally even as it was taking place.

“At this very moment self-described socialists Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are hosting a rally in Wichita for Kansas Democrats,” he wrote in an email to supporters. “Their goal is ambitious, extreme and dangerous.”

Despite all the enthusiasm surrounding Ocasio-Cortez, many establishment Democrats have bristled at the suggestion that the far-left ideas espoused by her and Sanders represent the party’s position. And they reject the notion that Ocasio-Cortez’s victory last month over Joseph Crowley, the fourth-ranking House Democrat, signaled a fundamental dissatisfaction with the party’s aging leaders.

Ocasio-Cortez’s swift rise has also exposed divisions in the party over whether the insurgent candidates can capture victories across the country in general elections, against Republicans. In an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal this week, Joe Lieberman, the Democrat-turned-independent former senator from Connecticut, urged voters to vote for Crowley on a third-party line instead of Ocasio-Cortez because, he said, her policies were too far left.

“Her election in November would make it harder for Congress to stop fighting and start fixing problems,” he wrote.

Some political strategists question whether Ocasio-Cortez’s presence in districts vastly different from hers will turn off, rather than invigorate, voters.

“I would hope that she would keep her eye on the critical need to elect a House Democratic majority to stop Donald Trump and allow and trust candidates to run their campaigns in a way that results in the majority that we need,” said Steve Israel, a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and longtime New York representative. “There’s an important role for her to play in progressive districts, and with vitally needed base voters. But a message that resonates in some districts could seem out of tune in others.”

But supporters of Ocasio-Cortez’s democratic socialism have primarily exhibited a sense of optimism — in her, in her star power, in the progressive message generally — since her victory. They note that Sanders won the 2016 presidential primaries in both Kansas and Michigan and hope they can build on that energy.

They also point to the fact that many Democratic candidates have embraced key pieces of the progressive policy agenda, including Medicare for all and a higher minimum wage. For his part, Sanders has said he sees Ocasio-Cortez’s success as proof that his progressive message is not only spreading, but winning. (He did not endorse Ocasio-Cortez.)

His swing with Ocasio-Cortez through Kansas came about organically, according to a person familiar with the decision process, after they realized they were both interested in going to the state to support candidates there. Both were eager to show that a message that works in Burlington, Vermont, and New York City can also work in a red state.

The same goes for Michigan, where Ocasio-Cortez will campaign next weekend with Abdul El-Sayed, a former director of Detroit’s health department, who is running for governor. Inspired by her message and campaign style, El-Sayed first connected with Ocasio-Cortez on Twitter. He now hopes he can one day tell his young daughter about the night “Auntie Alexandria” won in New York.

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s win is a validation point,” he said in an interview. “She showed us how it’s done.”