NBC: Ocasio-Cortez all in on attacking moderate Dem incumbents

Ah, purity campaigns — the projects from which neither party ever learns any lasting lessons. The group Justice Democrats recruited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run against Joe Crowley in a ridiculously safe Democratic seat as a way to shake up the status quo and gain a little political traction. Crowley, who had been part of the House Democrats’ leadership clique, fell asleep at the switch and lost his primary, leading to Ocasio-Cortez’ easy layup in November.

Now, NBC reports, AOC has joined up with Justice Democrats again for a new recruiting drive aimed at generating primary challenges against her new colleagues in the House Democratic caucus. The group launched this video today for their #OurTime effort, heavily featuring their new — and only — star:

Under the program, activists can nominate potential candidates for the group’s backing. In the video, Ocasio-Cortez recounts how she was nominated by her brother and became interested in running while participating in environmental protests with Native Americans activists at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

“Everybody knows someone in their life that is already an amazing public servant,” Ocasio-Cortez says in the video, which also features her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, and spokesman, Corbin Trent. “Nominate that amazing public servant to take their service to the halls of Congress. Give them that nudge.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s participation in the Justice Democrats’ program could be a source of tension on the Hill, where members backing primaries against their colleagues is rare.

Gee … ya think? Ocasio-Cortez has already hinted at an effort to unseat fellow New Yorker Hakeem Jeffries, although that’s apparently less about ideology than it is about personal score-settling. At that time, Ocasio-Cortez objected to the reporting of support for challenges to Democratic incumbents in general and Jeffries in particular, but her participation in this video makes her general intent more than clear, and her denial last month less than credible.

NBC notes that Henry Cuellar will be a particular target this time around, as the group searches for a true-blue progressive to challenge him in a mostly moderate Texas district. Of course, on principle, it’s tough to argue with this:

In the new video, Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas says “running in competitive primary elections in Democratic-held seats is important” while Trent, the Ocasio-Cortez spokesman, warns that a 97 percent re-election rate for incumbents leads to “electoral atrophy” without primaries.

“The reason we want to keep doing Democrat vs. Democrat primaries is because it’s a way to move the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction and make Democrats more accountable to their base and not just corporate donors,” Waleed Shahid, spokesman for Justice Democrats, told NBC News.

In practice, however, this rarely works out well — and Ocasio-Cortez isn’t a particularly good example of the rare win. She owes her seat in Congress to the same dynamic that got Republican Dave Brat his seat four years earlier: a lack of attention from an ensconced incumbent of a leadership clique. Eric Cantor had lost focus on his constituents, allowing for the shoestring Tea Party challenger to get a surprise win in the 2014 primary — a good cycle for the GOP anyway. Brat only held the seat for two cycles, however, as the R+6 district didn’t apparently respond well to Brat’s hardline Freedom Caucus conservatism.

Brat didn’t turn out to be a bellwether of a more conservative wave in the American electorate. Ocasio-Cortez almost certainly won’t be a bellwether of a more progressive wave, either. Democrats did a good job in the last cycle in appealing to moderates, especially in the suburbs where Trump’s popularity has declined over the last two years. A purity campaign aimed at sidelining moderates within the Democratic Party will result in a more pure minority rather than a more representative majority, which of course suits us just fine.

Jazz Shaw Jun 22, 2021 6:01 PM ET