Texas Rep. Dan Crenshaw was in Brooklyn and Staten Island last week, stumping for Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis in her bid to win New York’s 11th congressional district. Even though we are well more than a year away from the 2020 election, the visit from the Texas congressman may hold some clues about how House Republicans plan to reverse their 2018 losses and perhaps even take back the chamber.
Three things at work here deserve some notice. First is Crenshaw himself, who has emerged as leading young voice in the GOP. Second is Malliotakis, a prototype of a young, diverse, female candidate in a swing suburbanish district. Finally, looming in the background are Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the far-left socialist wing of the House Democratic caucus.
Through a combination of charisma, social media savvy, and a turn on “Saturday Night Live,” Crenshaw has become a big voice in the Republican Party whom we can expect to see stumping for candidates all over the country. Malliotakis told me in an interview, “He’s a rising star in the party. A Navy SEAL war hero and congressman. He’s unique.”
I asked Crenshaw about his newfound fame and how he plans to use that opportunity, and while he told me he doesn’t plan to be involved in many primaries, in some cases like Malliotakis’s he sees a “clear-cut opportunity to support somebody and get them out [of the primary] quickly and unscathed.” It is clear that he sees a role for himself in helping to prime the pump for GOP victories and will be not just an asset to candidates, but someone thinking about a broader strategy that can win.
Malliotakis appears to be exactly the kind of candidate that Republicans need to compete in the districts, like NY11, that they lost in 2018. Crenshaw emphasized that, “We need more young smart, experienced women in the GOP to get out our message.” Malliotakis, who took on Bill de Blasio in the 2017 New York mayor’s race, fits that bill to a T.
Her brand of politics is focused on good government, urging that “Government should be utilizing tax dollars properly and putting resources where they should be, keep us safe, make sure the public school system is a good one, focus on infrastructure, roads, and transit.” Her approach is more about making government work for the people and less about the government being the problem.
But while both Crenshaw and Malliotakis want to focus on what Republicans can achieve if they take back the House, especially with a Trump economy going like gangbusters, there is an unavoidable and indelible force to fight against in front of them too. Ocasio-Cortez, whose district is a mere three miles from NY11, and her cadre of committed socialists will be an important and obvious target for all GOP candidates looking to recapture purple districts. This is something Democratic leadership understands too, and it explains their flailing and failing efforts to tamp the radical flames.
For Malliotakis this is personal. Her family had to flee Cuba after the Communist revolution there, all except her grandfather who stayed behind to try to protect gas stations and a home that he owned from state seizure. Her mother never saw her father again. “Socialism is Communism lite,” Malliotakis told me. She went on to say that people who have experienced it take a very different and dimmer view of it than people who have only learned about it in a classroom.
On paper, Malliotakis’ opponent is Rep. Max Rose, a war veteran and a Democrat desperate to cast himself as a moderate. But in some sense the real opponent is AOC and far-left New Progressives. In that fight, Malliotakis presents a convex mirror image of Ocasio-Cortez, and is a candidate who cannot be brushed off with quips about race or sex.
When I asked Crenshaw about Ocasio-Cortez, he was a bit more demure when I suggested he was the GOP’s version. “We operate on very different wavelengths,” he told me, but went on to say, “we utilize social media, we try to connect with voters in a way that’s not only about politics. Letting people into your lives.” He discussed how he and his team are meticulous in how they approach social media and branding in general.
In a moment that felt almost like admiration Crenshaw said, “AOC understands how to be famous. It’s got to be natural. It’s genuine.” That is, of course, something that Crenshaw has in his back pocket, too. It is very easy to see why candidates like Malliotakis want him in their districts and why the national Republican Party will want to put him front and center.
After either party gains huge victories in the House there is generally a correction. Some of those close wins go back the other way, especially in a presidential election cycle. Rose won NY11 by a comfortable margin against a fairly lackluster opponent in 2018, but Malliotakis is anything but lackluster.
If the GOP can field candidates like her, in districts like that, and let Crenshaw be a leading figure and voice, they may have something. And based on Crenshaw already stumping for 2020, it seems like they know it.