Last night, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez beat Joe Crowley for the Democratic nomination to Congress from NY-14. Here’s why you should pay attention to this.
First, though, let’s get everyone caught up, since most Kentuckians probably weren’t following this race that closely. Here’s how big an upset this was:
- Joe Crowley is the current Congress-person from that heavily Democratic district. Pretty much everyone assumed he would win, since he’s held the seat since 1999.
- He is the fourth-ranking Dem in the House.
- He was also in the discussion to be the next Speaker of the House if the Dems take it back, replacing Nancy Pelosi. THAT is how big of a heavy hitter he was seen to be.
- Less than a year ago, Ocasio-Cortez was not considering a run for Congress – she was a bartender.
- Crowley massively outspent her, from a campaign fund of over $3 million. Ocasio-Cortez raised a little over $200,000.
- Ocasio-Cortez is a Democratic Socialist, and served as an organizer for Bernie Sanders’s campaign.
- Assuming she wins in November, she will be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
So, how did she pull off the upset, and what lessons can Kentucky Democrats draw from this race?
She went for hundreds of small donors, instead of a few large ones. She refused all PAC money, and got 70 percent of her funding from donations under $200. (Crowley? He got less than 1 percent from small donors.)
If you scroll down the main page of her campaign site, you come to the standard Donate section. And what do you see? Options to donate $5, $14, $27, and $50. She’s making it obvious that small donors are welcome and encouraged.
Her opponent? Well, he got his funding from slightly larger donors:
Crowley donors who lost tonight: Facebook, Google, Blackrock, Humana, Raytheon, Capitol One, AFLAC, Microsoft, CIGNA, TD Bank, H&R Block, Salesforce dot com, United Technology, Deloitte, Covington and Burling, Anheuser-Busch, Honeywell…
— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) June 27, 2018
Click the tweet for nine more tweets listing all the big donors to Crowley. Stoller concludes:
These Crowley donors are just a selection. That's not all the companies who gave him money and I didn't even start with the billionaires. This is who you beat tonight. You didn't beat a politician. You beat a system. Never say it can't be done. @Ocasio2018 and a movement did it.
— Matt Stoller (@matthewstoller) June 27, 2018
She used social media to her advantage. She was unknown – until her campaign video went viral. (She wrote it herself.)
Go to her campaign site and look at the pictures. They aren’t your normal “here’s my happy family” and “here I am looking important” pictures. They are real people, real problems. She obviously knows her district, and connected with it.
Strong progressive positions
She wasn’t shy about taking progressive positions. She called for antitrust action against Facebook and other tech giants, and wants a U.S. version of the new EU privacy laws. She wants ICE completely defunded. In her video, she calls for Medicare for All, tuition-free public college, and criminal-justice reform.
Large volunteer organization to do GOTV
She built an organization of hundreds of volunteers, and used that organization to focus on Get Out the Vote work. As study after study has shown, doing GOTV and doing it well is almost always the winning edge in a race.
But you can pay for GOTV, if you have the money. What is different about doing it through volunteers who live in the district? Connection. They feel a part of the campaign, they tell their family and neighbors, it spreads.
When I was a minister of music, I loved doing musicals. Not because they were easy, or even particularly good music. I loved them because of all the ways people could get involved. People who said they “couldn’t sing” wound up painting sets, or helping with makeup, or putting up posters, or any of a hundred other jobs. We used to say that every person who volunteered would bring four other people to the performances. We were usually sold out.
All politics is local, and perhaps the voters in NY-14 were just ready for a change. But it’s also possible that they made that change because they heard a message and a candidate they believed in, got connected to that candidate through making a small donation, then got asked to help as a volunteer, and told their friends about what they were doing.
It is time for Democrats to realize that the voters are tired of corporate shills. They are tired of DC-driven campaigns. They are tired of being asked to vote, but never being asked—personally asked—to be involved. They are tired of middle-of-the-road Democrats. And they are tired of watching the country become run by the wealthy and powerful, while their candidates refuse to speak up about it.
Ocasio-Cortez broke all these molds, and in the process showed us how to win, not in New York, but in Pikeville and Paducah. Let’s hope Kentucky Democrats are paying attention.