As soon as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat incumbent Joe Crowley for New York’s 14th district seat, Democratic politicians across the country began insisting that truly progressive candidates could only be successful in a few communities on the coasts. Asked whether the left insurgency represents the future of the Democratic Party, Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth said, “I think it’s the future of the party in the Bronx.… I don’t think you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest.”
Abdul El-Sayed is currently running for the Democratic nomination for governor in Michigan, and is out to prove Duckworth—and the mainstream of the Democratic Party—wrong. He’s campaigning on state-level single-payer health care, tuition-free college for working and middle-class families, and a $15 minimum wage. He doesn’t accept corporate money and chastises Democrats who play by Citizens United rules.
He has the credentials of an Aaron Sorkin character: A Rhodes scholar, El-Sayed earned a doctorate at Oxford and a medical degree at Columbia, where he later taught public health. At 30, he became health director of Detroit.
The day of our interview Ocasio-Cortez had just finished a weekend of campaigning for El-Sayed. And the day after, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders announced he’d join El-Sayed for two rallies just before the August 7 primary. Excitement about the candidate, at campaign stops and in the press, makes one thing clear: Win or lose, El-Sayed has brought the left back to the Midwest.
Joseph Hogan: You just finished a major rally tour where you were joined by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Videos of these events show huge lines out the doors of packed auditoriums. What kinds of voters showed up: traditional Democrats, say, or new ones?
Abdul El-Sayed: Decidedly not traditional Democrats. These are entirely new voters. These are people who haven’t felt like they had much to vote for in the past—some of them stayed home or reluctantly voted in the general. But, if you think about the audience for an off-year gubernatorial primary: These are new voters, and they represent the fruition of an approach and strategy we’ve had for a long time. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez likes to remind us, our swing voters are not people who switch from red to blue. Our swing voters are people who go from nonvoter to voter.