Over the past few weeks, Ocasio-Cortez has also chided Sanders supporters for online harassment and delivered soft critiques of Sanders and some of his allies for being too “conflict-based.” The moves have drawn surprise praise from some moderate and veteran Democrats.
“The Democratic Party is the party of coalitions, not a cult,” said James Carville, a top strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and vocal critic of Sanders during the primary. “I’ve observed her. I think she’s really talented, that she’s really smart. Maybe she is — I don’t speak for her — coming to the conclusion that she wants to be part of the coalition.”
Neera Tanden, president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress and a longtime Hillary Clinton aide, called Ocasio-Cortez’s shift “a sign of leadership.”
“There are some people on the left who thought that their views represented a strong majority, and the primary process has shown that voters diverged, that Sanders is winning a minority and smaller minority than he had four years ago,” Tanden said.
Instead of supporting Justice Democrats’ full slate of incumbent challengers, Ocasio-Cortez launched her own PAC earlier this year that’s been more focused on electing progressives in Republican-held or open seats. Ocasio-Cortez declined to be interviewed, but her new communications director, Lauren Hitt, noted that Bush’s August 4 primary is still several months away and that the congresswoman is monitoring other primaries.
“We don’t usually endorse so far out,” Hitt said. Ocasio-Cortez, however, endorsed Newman six months before her primary and backed Cisneros more than four months before hers.
Of course, it’s easier to endorse a primary challenger as an outsider than as an incumbent working with the people she’d be trying to remove. Some of the campaigns for incumbent challengers said they understood that dynamic but still hoped that things might be different.
Bush’s campaign manager, Isra Allison, told POLITICO that despite the lack of an endorsement this time, “We support AOC and the work she’s done and the attention she’s brought to these important issues. Our opinions on that trump any of her recent decision-making.”
“It’s understood that she’s in a precarious position endorsing incumbent challengers at all being in Congress,” said Brandon Sharp, a senior adviser for Morgan Harper, a Justice Democrats-backed candidate challenging Rep. Joyce Beatty in Ohio. That primary was scheduled for earlier this month but was delayed by the spread of the novel coronavirus. Sharp added that the campaign hasn’t formally asked for an endorsement.
Justice Democrats aides said Ocasio-Cortez remains the most anti-establishment Democrat in Congress. They pointed to fundraising and advocacy work she has already done for Cisneros and Newman. Cisneros lost her race, while Newman won.
“I can’t think of an elected politician who’s doing more to support primary challengers and a new generation of progressive leadership in the Democratic Party than her,” said the group’s spokesperson, Waleed Shahid.
Still, some left-wing supporters have been less enamored with Ocasio-Cortez’s evolution. Many were reluctant to speak publicly, however, given her stature and the fact that Sanders’ expected loss makes her a likely heir to his movement.
The changes go beyond rhetoric and include personnel. Two of her most senior aides who worked on her insurgent campaign have left her operation — chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti, who co-founded Justice Democrats, left in August, and communications director Corbin Trent left her team earlier this month.
Some associates of Ocasio-Cortez thought Trent was hurting her by calling for tactics they felt were politically foolhardy. One ally recalled Trent wanted Ocasio-Cortez to go beyond “Medicare for All” and embrace a fully nationalized health care system like the United Kingdom’s, in an attempt to further stretch the boundaries of the debate.
Trent’s defenders in the progressive world believe his willingness to make enemies and indifference to what Pelosi thought helped push ideas like the Green New Deal into the mainstream.
Trent, who is working on Sanders’ presidential campaign, declined to comment.
The hiring of Hitt as Trent’s replacement speaks to Ocasio-Cortez’s new approach. An experienced operative, Hitt has worked for more moderate Democrats like Gov. John Hickenlooper and Rep. Beto O’Rourke during their recent presidential bids as well as left-wing candidates such as former New York gubernatorial contender Cynthia Nixon.
Hitt said in a statement that “there’s a lot of staff from the campaign that has stayed — including her deputy district director, her policy director on the campaign, and her field director on the campaign — as well as several junior members of staff.”
Chakrabarti was a firebrand on the Hill. After Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in November 2018, he earned enemies in the Democratic Caucus by declaring “we gotta primary folks.” They were livid in June when he called some members “new Southern Democrats.”
Ocasio-Cortez replaced him with legislative director Ariel Eckblad, who joined her office in January 2019 after working for Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).
Chakrabarti praised Ocasio-Cortez and her approach. “It’s hard to think of anyone who’s had more impact than her in their first year as a congressperson,” he told POLITICO.
Other progressives said Ocasio-Cortez’s more accommodating stance is a smart long-term strategy for a movement looking for a path forward. “She’s speaking in a way to create a majority in a way that Bernie is not interested in doing,” said Max Berger, the former director of progressive outreach on Elizabeth Warren’s campaign who also worked for Justice Democrats.
“If Bernie is Moses, then AOC is Joshua,” Berger added, referring to the biblical prophets.