In June 2018, the results of a New York City congressional primary woke people up to the prospect that a new politics might upend the status quo within the Democratic Party and across the nation. A democratic socialist who had worked on the 2016 presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders, and who ran a grassroots campaign that championed economic, social, and racial justice, defeated one of the top Democrats in the House of Representatives. And suddenly everyone was talking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
But a lot of the talk was dismissive: She upset a 10-term incumbent who wasn’t paying attention, we were told. It was a low-turnout election that drew fewer than 30,000 voters. The leader of the Democrats in the House, Nancy Pelosi, pointedly rejected the notion that AOC’s win represented a seismic shift in the party’s direction. It was a result of one race in one district; she warned, “It is not to be viewed as something that stands for everything else.”
Then came June 2020. Against a well-funded challenge from a former CNBC anchor who tried to suggest that the new incumbent was out of touch with the Bronx and Queens, AOC was winning bigger. A lot bigger. In a multicandidate field, the incumbent was securing almost 73 percent of the vote in the initial count from Tuesday’s primary. Indeed, with many absentee ballots yet to be tabulated, she already had more than 27,000 votes—close to the combined vote that she and former representative Joe Crowley accumulated two years ago.
“When I won in 2018, many dismissed our victory as a ‘fluke.’ Our win was treated as an aberration, or because my opponent ‘didn’t try,’” said Ocasio-Cortez as the magnitude of her win in the city’s 14th congressional district was becoming clear on Tuesday night. “So from the start, tonight’s race was important to me. Tonight we are proving that the people’s movement in New York isn’t an accident. It’s a mandate.”
That mandate challenges the Democratic Party to embrace Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, a federal jobs guarantee, an end to mass incarceration. It asks, as does AOC: “What if a better world is possible?” And it suggests that possibility can be turned to reality by recognizing that systemic problems can only be addressed by “fighting for systemic solutions.”
This insurgent vision, which just two years ago was so frequently dismissed, was taking hold in Democratic primaries on Tuesday. Candidates, many of them newcomers challenging incumbents and the party establishment, many of them supported by activists with groups such as the Sunrise Movement, were opening up leads in critical New York races and stood a chance of winning contests as far away as Kentucky. This was about more than individuals, even individuals as prominent as AOC has become. This was about movements, and the political possibilities that are revealed when candidates embrace them.
In the Bronx and Westchester County, former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman was leading House Foreign Affairs Committee chair Eliot Engel by a 62-35 margin in 16th District Democratic primary. “I cannot wait to get to Congress and cause problems for the people in there that have been maintaining a status quo that has literally been killing our children,” the outspoken supporter of #BlackLivesMatter protests told supporters on election night. “You know what Donald Trump is more afraid of than anything else? A black man with power. That is what Donald Trump is afraid of.”
Supported by Ocasio-Cortez and prominent national progressives such as Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Bowman ran a values-based campaign that finished with the candidate telling supporters, “Our movement is designed to restore that faith, to restore that hope, to bring back the belief in what is possible, to root our values in everything we do.” Such a movement, he said, must be prepared to take on leaders of both parties. “It will be our job to hold Donald Trump accountable and to hold every elected official accountable that continues to be beholden to corporate interests, that continues to be beholden to the wealthy, that is not fighting for the poor and is not fighting for the working class in our country.”
In the suburban 17th district, Mondaire Jones, a 33-year-old lawyer who was also endorsed by Warren, Sanders, and AOC, was accepting congratulations for moving significantly ahead of a crowded field in the race for the Democratic nomination for the open seat of retiring House Appropriations Committee chair Nita Lowry. “I have talked about big structural changes,” he told supporters Tuesday night, adding that “sometimes an idea is so powerful that it becomes an unstoppable force: a movement!” Jones, who could become the first openly gay African American member of Congress, told the crowd, “This is for [former Texas US representative] Barbara Jordan, that powerful voice in the United States House of Representatives who could not live an authentic life. This is for Bayard Rustin, the architect of the March on Washington, who could not publicly be associated with Martin Luther King because of the scandal of who he loved. This is for [former San Francisco Supervisor] Harvey Milk, who literally died as a pioneer for people like me. I am so grateful to the folks on whose shoulders I stand.”
On a night that saw progressives pulling ahead in congressional and legislative primaries all over New York—some with support from AOC; some, like 32-year-old South Bronx congressional candidate Ritchie Torres, without it—these breakthrough bids by young contenders who have pushed the boundaries of traditional politics were confirming that what happened in 2018 was not a fluke. There is a change taking place in our politics. New ideas are being adopted. New coalitions are being built.
Nowhere was that more true than in Kentucky, where US Senate candidate Charles Booker was holding his own in a race for the Democratic nomination to take on Mitch McConnell. With days to go before the count is complete, the African American state legislator was just 4,000 votes behind Amy McGrath, the candidate tapped by Democratic leaders in Washington to take on the Senate majority leader. Booker’s hopes rest on the fact that two of the counties where he is expected to run strongest, Jefferson (Louisville) and Fayette (Lexington), are not expected to release results until Tuesday, June 30, when all mail-in ballots are counted.
With the prospect of an electoral windfall coming his way, Booker was celebrating Tuesday night with supporters who hailed the 35-year African American legislator’s vision of a movement that unites African Americans in his hometown of Louisville with rural white voters “from the hood to the holler.”
“We are on the verge of something big. We are making History, Herstory, Theirstory, Ourstory…in real time,” announced Booker. “The results are coming in, and we are fired up. It may take a couple days for the final vote, but we are ready to bring this home.”
Unlike in the New York contests, where a Democratic primary victory virtually assures election in November, the biggest fight for Booker is yet to come. But he is confident that this new politics will prevail. “Only a movement can beat Mitch McConnell,” he argues. “We are the people he has ignored for decades. Black, Brown, and White Kentuckians, from the hood to the holler, we are rising up. We were so invisible to him, he never saw us coming.”