Despite Ocasio-Cortez upset, Democratic primaries have not gone as far left as some argue

Key Points
  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's win over Joe Crowley was a triumph for self-described progressives and could create momentum for similar results in the nation's remaining primaries. 
  • Still, Crowley is the only House Democrats so far this year to lose a primary, and national Democrats have gotten their preferred candidates in the vast majority of swing districts. 
  • Republicans argue Ocasio-Cortez's victory shows a party moving left, which will have a harder time winning general elections. 
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez 

Activist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's stunning primary upset Tuesday over high-ranking House Democrat Rep. Joe Crowley marked a triumph for self-described progressives. However, it does not mean the Democrats' left wing has a firm grasp on the party's primaries yet.

Still, Republicans will try to convince voters that is the case.

The win by the 28-year-old member of the Democratic Socialists of America over the 10-term incumbent sparked arguments that Democrats have turned sharply left, which could hurt them in November's midterms as they try to take back the House. The victory shows Democrats "are going hard left," Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell contended Wednesday. He called Ocasio-Cortez's win a "general election problem for them."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi — whom Crowley reportedly could have tried to succeed as leader if her bid fails in the next Congress — had a different take. She disputed that Democratic socialism is "ascendant" in the broader party. The California Democrat said that the win "is not to be viewed as something that stands for everything else."

The future of the democratic party after Ocasio-Cortez' surprise win

With more than half of state primary elections over, the Democratic Party's left flank has established no trend of knocking out candidates on their right. National Democrats' preferred House candidates — who in battleground districts can take centrist positions on some issues — have emerged from primaries the vast majority of the time. Crowley was the first House Democratic incumbent to fall this year, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee's chosen "red to blue" candidates have won 27 of their 29 primaries.

Ocasio-Cortez's stunning upset sent shock waves through the Democratic Party. Republicans contend it foreshadows a wave of left-wing candidates who cannot compete in general elections, while Democratic leaders believe the candidates best suited for their districts will ultimately emerge.

Based on federal primary results so far, progressive challengers have not yet taken a firm grip on the party primaries, and arguments about Democrats who would struggle to win in November appear overblown. Still, Ocasio-Cortez is trying to use her newfound clout in races around the country, but it remains to be seen if the results can be duplicated.

"So far, Democrats have nominated people who can win in that district. [Ocasio-Cortez] is actually a very good fit for that district," said Michael Cohen, interim director of the political management program at George Washington University's Graduate School of Political Management. "The idea that she's the avatar of progressivism and that's sweeping the country — it's overblown at this point."

Self-identified progressives and those candidates backed by the Democratic Socialists of America can support the same policies or run to the left of more moderate Democrats. But being a progressive does not mean someone is a Democratic socialist.

More candidates could channel Ocasio-Cortez

More candidates will try to draw lessons from Ocasio-Cortez's grass-roots success and attempt to replicate it in places other than New York's 14th District, the deep-blue Queens and Bronx area she won. She focused largely on economic and social policies to boost the working class. Those plans include tuition-free public college and raising the minimum wage, which are broadly popular among Democratic voters.

Independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, an ideological leader on the political left, told MSNBC on Wednesday that her "agenda will resonate all over the country." Ocasio-Cortez has endorsed other House candidates across the U.S.: Ayanna Pressley running against Rep. Michael Capuano in Massachusetts' 7th District, Cori Bush challenging Rep. Lacy Clay in Missouri's 1st District and Chardo Richardson going up against Rep. Stephanie Murphy in Florida's 7th District.

A poll from WBUR radio in Boston in February showed Capuano leading Pressley by 12 points in the race, which will take place Sept. 4. Public polling was not yet available for the Missouri or Florida races. Those states hold primaries on Aug. 7 and Aug. 28, respectively.

While her endorsements put those candidates on the map, backing from even political titans such as former President Barack Obama and Sanders does "not tend to be terribly predictive" of results, said David Barker, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

Self-described progressives who call for policies such as Medicare for all, criminal justice reform or abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement are gaining a stronger foothold in the Democratic Party. Still, the movement has taken hold more in state elections than federal races, and mostly in blue areas.

Sanders built a strong bid for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination on the same principles. He has amassed a huge political following and endorsed candidates who have challenged so-called establishment Democrats.

Democratic primary challengers made waves elsewhere Tuesday. Former NAACP President Ben Jealous, who ran on progressive policies, will challenge Republican Gov. Larry Hogan in blue-leaning Maryland. In New York, Democratic Rep. Yvette Clarke faced an unexpectedly strong challenge from the left, but earned a narrow win.

Though self-described progressives have scored big wins in blue pockets of the country, 2018 Democratic primary voters have still chosen more moderate candidates in many high-profile races.

"Generally speaking, progressives have done well in progressive districts whereas moderates have done well in moderate districts. The Democrats seem to be choosing candidates who suit their districts reasonably well," American University's Barker said.

Crowley is the first Democratic incumbent to fall this year

No U.S. House candidates have had Ocasio-Cortez's success in challenging an incumbent from the left this year. In beating Crowley, she became the first Democratic challenger to topple a House Democrat in a 2018 primary. Incumbents are typically tough to beat.

On Wednesday, Pelosi downplayed the broader effect the self-proclaimed Democratic socialist's win would have on other House races. She contended that "nobody's district is represented by somebody else's district."

Pelosi called the Queens and Bronx area Ocasio-Cortez won a "very progressive" area. She joked that some activists in her San Francisco-area district call her a "corporate pawn" even as Republicans consider her too far left.

Democratic socialist-backed candidates have knocked off established politicians at the state level in 2018. It's not clear now what implications those wins have at the national level, but Republicans will still try to make a Democratic leftward shift a campaign issue.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

In one example from May, Democratic socialist-backed candidates Sara Innamorato and Summer Lee defeated long-established state Reps. Dom and Paul Costa, respectively, in Pittsburgh-area Democratic primaries.

Still, no candidate running from the left had taken out a U.S. House member until Tuesday. The most similar outcome to that result came in May, when social worker Kara Eastman defeated former Rep. Brad Ashford in Nebraska's 2nd District primary. Republicans cheered her win, as the DCCC considered the more moderate Ashford a better fit for the GOP-held district.

But in many notable cases this year, centrist candidates have triumphed. The red to blue candidates backed by the DCCC have won 27 of their 29 primary elections so far. Many of those candidates take moderate positions on some issues as they try to unseat House Republicans in red-leaning areas. The list features numerous military veterans, who have a broad appeal to voters.

Eastman's Nebraska race against Ashford, one of the DCCC's red to blue candidates who lost, provides insight into significant policy differences between self-described progressives and more moderate Democrats. Eastman supports Medicare for all, while Ashford wanted to increase health-care access and affordability within the existing system, according to Omaha.com. Eastman wants to raise the corporate tax rate to the pre-GOP tax law 35 percent, while Ashford aimed to increase it from the current 21 percent to 26 percent, the news outlet reported. Ashford backed the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade deal, while Eastman was critical of it, according to Omaha.com.

The DCCC has focused on helping primary candidates it believes are best positioned to win general elections. The stakes are huge: Democrats hope to flip 23 GOP-held House seats in November to take a majority in the chamber.

A DCCC aide contended that the Democratic candidates with the best chances of unseating Republicans are winning their races. The House Democratic campaign arm believes primary voters have unified around electing candidates who can prevail in November, the aide added.

Jason Crow 
Harry E. Walker | MCT | Getty Images

Three of the DCCC-backed candidates running in competitive districts easily won primary elections Tuesday even as Ocasio-Cortez took out Crowley. Veterans Max Rose and Jason Crow both garnered more than 60 percent of the vote as they prevailed in primaries for New York's 11th District and Colorado's 6th District, respectively. Crow will try to unseat Republican Rep. Mike Coffman, while Rose aims to flip GOP Rep. Dan Donovan's seat.

The third candidate, state Assemblyman Anthony Brindisi, ran unopposed in New York's 22nd District Democratic primary. He will face GOP Rep. Claudia Tenney in a competitive November race.

The National Republican Congressional Committee, meanwhile, has contended Ocasio-Cortez's win could lead to challengers taking out House Democratic incumbents — or forcing them to the left to win — in more ideologically balanced districts. Republicans believe that Democrats who support more progressive policies will have a tougher time winning general elections in districts that are not solidly blue.

In a release Thursday, the NRCC questioned whether Florida's Murphy would become the "next Joe Crowley." The first-term representative will go up against Ocasio-Cortez-backed challenger Richardson in her Democratic primary.

The NRCC urged Murphy to go on the record about whether she supports single-payer health care, whether Congress should abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement and whether she wants to roll back the Republican tax plan. Murphy campaign manager Christie Stephenson directed CNBC to an Orlando Sentinel story. She told the newspaper that Murphy's "results speak for themselves, and Stephanie believes if you work hard and put people first, the politics will take care of itself."

The story notes that Richardson has so far had more trouble raising money than Ocasio-Cortez did.

Still, it is not entirely clear how much supporting progressive policies will hurt candidates. Some proposals supported by the Democratic Party's left flank have a plurality of support nationwide.

What campaigns have to figure out is how much support those policies have in specific districts where they are running.

An April Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll found 51 percent of Americans support a single-payer health plan, while 43 percent are against it. A Gallup poll in December found 47 percent of Americans back a government-run health system — up from 43 percent in 2016 — while 48 percent oppose it.

Sixty-two percent of Americans think upper-income people pay too little in taxes, according to a Gallup survey in April. A Reuters/Ipsos poll in October — taken as Republicans moved toward passing a tax plan that would give most tax cut benefits to corporations and the wealthy — found that about three-quarters of Americans believe the wealthiest should pay more in taxes.

Polling for the health-care and tax plans pursued by the current Republican-held Congress was consistently poor. A series of surveys released in July 2017, as the GOP tried to pass an Obamacare replacement, showed support for one version of the plan below 20 percent. Just 27 percent of Americans called the tax law a good idea in April, according to an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

A plurality of U.S. adults — 47 percent — also agree that public colleges should be tuition free, according to a Gallup survey in 2016. Only 45 percent disagree with dropping tuition for public schools.

Still, with President Donald Trump in the White House and Republicans favored to hold at least one chamber of Congress in November, pledges to support progressive policies are "messaging statements more than anything else" at this point, Cohen said.