Ocasio-Cortez Builds Progressive Campaign Arm to Challenge Democrats

WASHINGTON — Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on Friday endorsed an all-female slate of progressive candidates through her new political action committee, using her clout in the insurgent left and the considerable campaign funds she has drawn to counter the Democratic establishment in key races around the country.

The endorsements of the congressional candidates — including one who is challenging Senate Democrats’ preferred candidate in Texas — amount to a powerful stamp of approval for a diverse group of newcomers. They also are a clear sign that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, a celebrity of the liberal left, intends to leverage her influence among activists to try to reshape the Democratic Party.

The move also underlines the struggle among Democrats that is defining the race for the presidency, which is pitting Senator Bernie Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist, against more moderate candidates who are presenting themselves as better able to appeal to a broad section of voters in taking on President Trump. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has traversed the country to campaign for Mr. Sanders, and her efforts to pull Congress to the left parallel his bid to deploy his progressive message to emerge as the Democratic nominee, an effort that has instilled fear in many centrist lawmakers who believe it could cost them their seats.

“One of our primary goals is to reward political courage in Congress and also to help elect a progressive majority in the House of Representatives,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview. “There’s kind of a dual nature to this: One is opening the door to newcomers, and the other is to reward members of Congress that are exhibiting very large amounts of political courage.”

Her own upset victory in 2018 over a 20-year Democratic congressman has inspired a slew of Democratic primary challenges across the nation targeting powerful incumbents — though many have little chance of winning. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who toppled a top party leader in her primary election, has carefully selected the races in which she is intervening with an eye for districts where her seal of approval would help the primary challenger prevail.

“Anyone can show up one day and say, ‘I support all these policies; that makes me a progressive,’” she said. “But one of the things that is really important to us is winning.”

In the committee’s first slate of endorsements, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is backing seven women running for congressional seats, including Cristina Tzintzún Ramirez, a labor and voting rights activist who is running against the candidate endorsed by Senate Democrats’ campaign arm, M.J. Hegar, to take on a Republican, Senator John Cornyn. Three others — Teresa Leger Fernandez in New Mexico, Samelys López in New York, and Georgette Gómez in California — are running for open seats in Democratic districts; Ms. Gómez has also been endorsed by Mr. Sanders. Another, Kara Eastman, is challenging Representative Don Bacon, Republican of Nebraska, for a second time.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has already announced her support for primary challengers to a pair of her House Democratic colleagues: Marie Newman, who is running against Representative Daniel Lipinski of Illinois, and Jessica Cisneros, who is seeking to oust Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas.

Democratic strategists say that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez could shape the terrain for congressional candidates in powerful ways.

“We’ve never seen somebody break onto the scene with this amount of potential and ability to drive the conversation and drive financial commitments from supporters,” said Ian Russell, a former deputy executive director of House Democrats’ campaign arm. “The challenge for her is determining where she wants to spend her capital.”

Leveraging her name recognition and ability to bring in an avalanche of donations with a single post on Twitter, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez began the Courage to Change political action committee in January, pledging to elect “working-class champions” and explicitly framing the enterprise as a progressive counterweight to House Democrats’s campaign arm.

“When community leaders, activists, and working-class candidates try to run for office, organizations like the D.C.C.C. discourage them,” read a fund-raising pitch for the committee, using the acronym for the campaign arm, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “These potential progressive leaders are asked: ‘Can you raise $300,000 from your friends and family? If not, don’t bother trying.’”

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said she saw her role as breaking down the barriers to entry for the kinds of Democrats who should be serving.

“It’s important for us to create mechanisms of support because so much of what is happening in Washington is driven by fear of loss,” she said in the interview. “We can really create an ecosystem that makes people more comfortable into making the leap to make politically courageous choices.”

The endorsements reflect a careful calculus by Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who came to Congress vowing to take down Democrats who were not sufficiently progressive, but she has since tempered that zeal. In both cases where she has thrown her support behind a challenger to a sitting lawmaker, the incumbents have broken with key Democratic orthodoxies; Mr. Lipinski opposes abortion rights, while Mr. Cuellar has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association.

She has not yet endorsed a candidate vying to oust any of the party elders, including the leaders of several high-profile committees who are facing primary challenges, like Representative Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts, the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York, who leads the Judiciary Committee, or Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

The House Democratic campaign arm infuriated progressives last year when it formalized a policy barring campaign vendors from conducting business with a primary opponent of a sitting Democrat, a move intended to shield incumbents. Democratic leaders defended the policy, arguing it was reasonable to afford incumbents that level of protection.

Top progressive lawmakers in the House in January signed onto a temporary détente, but Ms. Ocasio-Cortez made clear she would continue to refuse paying the party dues and press forward with her own fund-raising.

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has “always been the gatekeeper and to some extent it still is,” Mr. Russell said.

But, he added, “we are seeing new forces like AOC on the scene, breaking through the gates.”

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez raised $1.4 million in January, according to her campaign, with nearly 20,000 contributions directed specifically to the political action committee. The average contribution was about $17.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s star power has already surged as she campaigns for Mr. Sanders, drawing thousands to rallies and raising larger questions about what she will do next.

“Alexandria is a real political talent,” said Representative Ro Khanna, Democrat of California, and an ally of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s. “She has made an enormous impact on the Green New Deal, and I predict she will be governor or senator in the near future and then off to the races after that.”

Mr. Trump made a more provocative prediction this month, writing on Twitter that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez would mount a primary challenge to Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the minority leader, and win because of “how badly” he said Mr. Schumer had handled impeachment. A spokesman for Mr. Schumer declined to comment.

Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said that she was not sure what her next move in politics would be — and that she sometimes wondered how long she would stay in politics. Until then, she said she would work to elect more people like herself to serve in the House and Senate.

“While I think sometimes a lot of people see this as a huge amassing of influence or power or money or what have you, my personal experience does not feel that way — it can feel very lonely,” she said. “I think my ambition right now is to be a little less lonely in Congress.”

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