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What Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Challenge To Hakeem Jeffries Could Mean For 2020


Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s hot-shot trip to political stardom was the most compelling story of the 2018 midterms. Today, Politico reports that the Democratic upstart, even before taking office, may be planning an audacious attack on a fellow New Yorker that could shake the Democratic Party to its foundations. According to the report, her target is Hakeem Jeffries, who is about to become the second-highest-ranking black Democrat in the House.

Cortez made clear after her historic win over the powerful Joe Crowley that she intended, like the Tea Party of yore did on the right, to endorse a slate of candidates to primary Democrats who are not in line with her socialist vision for America. The group Justice Democrats will be leading that charge. According to their executive director, Alexandra Rojas, “We’re going to double down on primary challenges and look at some of these white, male corporate Democrats similar to Joe Crowley.”

For one obvious reason, Jeffries does not fit this description. Although Jeffries is a powerful and popular black politician, is he too close to the corporate establishment for Ocasio-Cortez and her allies? According to the report, a black woman is being sought to challenge him, and his allegedly status quo ideas for the party.

Is This Challenge Realistic?

On paper, Jeffries should feel pretty safe. He is popular in his district and unlike Crowley is not facing any major demographic shifts that could harm his candidacy. He will likely have the backing of New York City’s powerful Democratic machine and is a strong fundraiser and affable candidate. But this doesn’t mean there aren’t powerful forces that could be a progressive stack against him.

Cynthia Nixon’s candidacy for governor against Andrew Cuomo helped to develop a second machine in Democratic politics in Gotham, one that is hard for the establishment to control. These forces support a much more revolutionary kind of politics than Jeffries has. At a time with such harsh political polarization, it is also a politics that is resonating with many Democrats.

Jeffries could also be faced with the challenge of not just running against his opponent, but against Ocasio-Cortez, whose district neighbors his own. How should he react to that? Argue he’s the adult in the room, willing to compromise to get things done, or raise the red flag and tack to the socialist left?

What About Presidential Candidates?

Outside of Jeffries’ race and what could happen to New York City politics, this could have a national impact. If Ocasio-Cortez’s star power, together with potential celebrity endorsements, is enough to make this primary a serious national story, it could force presidential candidates into an uncomfortable box.

Do Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or any of the potential Democrat candidates really want to have to make this choice? In effect, they will have to, because staying neutral — which is to say, failing to endorse Jeffries — would be a clear win for the Ocasio-Cortez faction and give legitimacy to the primary challenge.

This race could easily become a microcosm of the broader battles within the party of Jefferson and Jackson over what it stands for and its future. Is it the broad, moderate party that will use calm centrism to cure what it sees as the ills caused by Trump? Or is it a revolutionary party, taking the opportunity to press ideas that not long ago might have seemed extreme?

Thus far, potential Democratic candidates have been able to duck this fundamental question. They can give lip service to both sides without planting a flag in either. A coordinated campaign to primary Democrats, including Democrats of color with strong progressive voting records, would draw a line in the sand. Candidates would have to come down on one side or the other.

This challenge to Jeffries may not come to pass. Perhaps House leadership can quell it, and convince Ocasio-Cortez to stay on the reservation. Either way, this split in the Democratic Party is real and is going to be in the spotlight in 2020. Questions that have been dormant will have to be answered, and only one side can win.

Ocasio-Cortez is making it clear that she believes she is the future of the Democratic Party. With a confidence befitting her youth, she sees a radicalization coming. Status quo politicians with strong corporate ties do not fit into that party. She is attempting a major move here. This is politics at the highest stakes, and it is only just beginning.