The Squad in the spotlight: AOC, progressive peers face primary challenges of their own

U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) participates in a Census Town Hall at the Louis Armstrong Middle School in Queens, New York City

By Joseph Ax and Susan Cornwell

(Reuters) – Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset over a member of the Democratic congressional leadership in 2018 made her a household name and inspired similar insurgent campaigns around the United States.

Now the democratic socialist from New York City, best known by her initials AOC, must survive her own challenge from within the party in a June 23 primary election. Two other members of “the Squad” – four women of color who, in their first terms, have become the face of the U.S. House of Representatives’ liberal wing – also face primary challengers.

Like Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan’s Rashida Tlaib and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar face opponents who have accused them of prioritizing their celebrity over their constituents.

The contests – along with races like liberal Jamaal Bowman’s challenge to 16-term Congressman Eliot Engel in New York – offer a new gauge of the strength of the party’s left wing, months after Senator Bernie Sanders lost the presidential nominating battle to the more moderate Joe Biden.

A win over any “Squad” member would be an upset, and each has raised significantly more money than her opponents. But Engel appears to have a close fight on his hands, as Bowman – backed by liberal groups including MoveOn and Justice Democrats – has secured endorsements from both Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez.

“The general rule of thumb in these primaries is the challengers almost always fail,” said Kyle Kondik, an elections analyst at the University of Virginia.

In New York, Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a former CNBC host, has sought to turn one of Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 arguments against her: that she is too focused on her own career to attend to the needs of her district.

Caruso-Cabrera, a former Republican, often says, “AOC is MIA,” and attacked her for helping to kill Amazon.com Inc’s <AMZN.O> proposal to build its new headquarters in New York City.

“I can’t believe a representative would throw away 25,000 jobs and brag about it,” Caruso-Cabrera, 53, said in an interview. “People of the Bronx are tired of the Bronx being appropriated for her personal power grab.”

Ocasio-Cortez, 30, has defended her opposition to the Amazon deal, citing the company’s working conditions and the possibility that neighborhood rents would skyrocket.

“I am constantly home in this district,” Ocasio-Cortez said during a recent debate, adding that she has attended more than 200 events, including 17 town halls.

A May poll conducted for her campaign gave Ocasio-Cortez a 73%-11% lead. Pollster Celinda Lake said the survey also showed most constituents “think of her as fighting for them.”

MINNESOTA CHALLENGE, MICHIGAN REMATCH

In Minneapolis, which has been convulsed by protests since the death of George Floyd last month after a police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, Omar faces several opponents.

She had a turbulent first year, engaging in high-profile spats with President Donald Trump and receiving condemnation from some Democrats for controversial comments on Israel.

Her most prominent challenger, lawyer Antone Melton-Meaux, describes Omar, 37, as too divisive to be effective.

“Congresswoman Omar is a divider,” Melton-Meaux, 47, said in an interview. “I’m not interested in celebrity; I’m interested in service.”

Omar’s campaign spokesman, Jeremy Slevin, said in an email, “Representative Omar lives and breathes the 5th District,” adding that she and her team have held more than 1,000 constituent meetings and conversations.

In Michigan, Tlaib, 43, faces a rematch against Detroit City Council President Brenda Jones, 60, who lost by fewer than 1,000 votes in 2018.

Jones has also questioned Tlaib’s commitment to her constituents, though she has largely refrained from direct attacks.

“I am one that works with people – even when I don’t always agree with them – in order to get things done for my community,” Jones said.

In response, Tlaib’s campaign spokesman noted she had opened four neighborhood service centers, held dozens of town halls and helped residents secure unemployment benefits and protective equipment during the pandemic.

“Representative Tlaib is rooted in the community and has not stopped working for residents,” the spokesman, Denzel McCampbell, said via email.

The fourth “Squad” member, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, has no primary opposition.

While their newfound fame has opened up the “Squad” to allegations that they are “out of touch,” the argument can resonate more with voters when it is aimed at lawmakers with decades in office, such as Engel, said Ian Russell, the former national political director of the Democratic congressional campaign arm.

The attack landed more squarely after The Atlantic magazine in May reported Engel did not visit his New York district for weeks after the coronavirus pandemic erupted. In response, Engel’s campaign spokesman said he is “laser-focused” on helping his district and touted the billions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief that New York has received.

“If they knock off Engel, that’s a game-changer in a lot of ways, because it demonstrates they’ve continued their momentum,” Russell said of the left wing.

But Kondik noted that progressives already lost the biggest fight of the year: “The Democratic Party as a whole was offered an establishment-versus-ideological choice in the primary, and the party pretty overwhelmingly picked Biden.”

(Reporting by Joseph Ax and Susan Cornwell; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)