Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Proves That Money Doesn’t Win Elections: Are the Democrats Listening?

There are many lessons to draw from last week’s stunning upset. Maybe the biggest is that money isn’t everything

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s startling primary victory over the No. 4 House Democrat, Rep. Joe Crowley, could represent a seismic shift in the Democratic Party. Ocasio-Cortez, who was largely ignored by the mainstream media until her surprise win last week, looks a lot like the future of the Democratic Party. She is a 28-year old millennial, a woman of color from a working-class immigrant family, and perhaps most notably, a democratic socialist with an unapologetically progressive and anti-establishment message.

As many in the press have already pointed out, the Democratic primary in New York’s 14th congressional district was, as the New York Times put it, “the most significant loss for a Democratic incumbent in more than a decade, and one that will reverberate across the party and the country.” The most common comparison has been to Dave Brat’s 2014 defeat of Rep. Eric Cantor, who was then the House Majority Leader. Brat was a Tea Party activist who challenged Cantor — a fundraising machine for the Republican Party — with an ideology-driven message, much as Ocasio-Cortez did with Crowley. But as Vox’s Matthew Yglesias has remarked, Ocasio-Cortez’s win is even more shocking, as ideological defeats of Democratic incumbents "are historically much rarer than on the Republican side.”

There are plenty of lessons to take away from Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, but the most important for the Democratic Party may be the fact that in our current era, a grassroots candidate with an effective political message can trump a candidate who knows how to raise the most cash. Crowley outraised Ocasio-Cortez by 10-to-1, taking in $3.3 million compared to her roughly $300,000, which should have been enough to guarantee him an easy victory, according to the prevailing logic of many in the Democratic Party. It didn’t, of course. Like the 2016 presidential election, this upset reveals how politically out of touch the Democratic leadership can be.

The Democratic Party’s obsession with fundraising has been well documented. The Intercept reported earlier this year, for example, that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) chooses candidates based on how much money they can potentially raise.

“On the most basic level,” reported Lee Fang and Ryan Grim, “it involves candidates being asked to pull out their smartphones, scroll through their contacts lists, and add up the amount of money their contacts could raise or contribute to their campaigns. If the candidates’ contacts aren’t good for at least $250,000, or in some cases much more, they fail the test, and party support goes elsewhere.”

These priorities reveal how the Democratic leadership is still operating under the assumption that elections are bought rather than won. But Ocasio-Cortez, like other up-and-coming progressive candidates, is the product of a new kind of politics that has emerged in recent years.

The 28-year old democratic socialist was an organizer for Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign, which laid the groundwork for grassroots campaigns like hers, and proved that it is possible to successfully run without taking money from super PACs and other big donors. Like Sanders in 2016, Ocasio-Cortez has emphasized the grassroots nature of her campaign, and has made campaign finance reform one of her major issues.

“The first pledge Alexandria made to voters in this election was to commit herself to clean campaign finance,” her campaign website states. “As a candidate, Alexandria recognizes the corrupting influence of corporate fundraising on legislative policy. Where she stands farthest apart from her primary opponent Joe Crowley is in her steadfast refusal to allow her campaign to be underwritten by lobbyist contributions.”

Ocasio-Cortez vowed to overturn the Supreme Court's catastrophic Citizens United decision and work towards creating a publicly funded campaign system. Campaign finance, her campaign site continues, is “an issue that should concern all Americans, regardless of their political point of view, who wish to preserve the longest standing democracy in the world.”

There is overwhelming support for campaign finance reform in America. A recent CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 76 percent of Americans favor “new federal laws limiting the amount of money that any individual or group can contribute to the national political parties,” while a majority also support overturning Citizens United with a constitutional amendment. Meanwhile, a 2017 AP poll found that 82 percent of Americans believe that the wealthy have too much power and influence in Washington, while 69 percent believe working people don’t have enough influence.

These numbers reveal the widespread aversion towards money in politics. Not surprisingly, this translates into popular hostility towards candidates who are known for raising money from big donors. This was clear in the 2016 election, when Hillary Clinton, who raised $1.2 billion from super PACs — nearly twice as much as her opponent — was widely (if perhaps unfairly) seen as unscrupulous and corrupt.

It was also clear with Crowley, who is known for his fundraising abilities. The Intercept reported a week before the election that Crowley was holding a fundraiser with the GOP-associated lobbying firm BGR Group, which represents major defense and pharmaceutical companies along with a variety of other corporations. This was akin to Clinton’s infamous Goldman Sachs speeches, which plagued the candidate throughout her campaign.

One can only speculate whether candidates like Crowley and Clinton were swayed by the contributions they received (quid pro quo is notoriously difficult to prove, especially when an entire system is corrupted), but both displayed a serious lack of judgment that cost them dearly. These candidates believed that raising the most money was the surest route to victory. While that may have been true in the past, it backfired spectacularly when voters perceived them as caring more about their donors (and their political careers) than the people they were supposed to represent. Crowley and Clinton also failed to express a convincing ideological vision, and opted to run on anti-Trump platforms that failed to inspire voter enthusiasm or turnout.

Crowley and Clinton are part of a larger problem within the Democratic Party. Its leadership has consistently failed to recognize the shifting political attitudes of the past decade, and only Beltway careerists could have missed the broad appeal of someone like Ocasio-Cortez, who offered a radical critique of the status quo.

In five months the midterm elections will arrive, and many in the Democratic Party are anticipating a blue wave that will win back control of the House for the first time since 2010. For the sake of the country one hopes this is the case. But if the Democratic leadership stubbornly rejects the new brand of politics represented by young candidates like Ocasio-Cortez, the blue wave may not be as powerful or as lasting as many hope and expect.

Don't let big tech control what news you see. Get more stories like this in your inbox, every day.

Conor Lynch is a writer and journalist living in New York City. His work has appeared on Salon, The Hill, AlterNet, and openDemocracy. Follow him on Twitter.