Ocasio-Cortez, the GOP's Midterm Boogeyman?

Ocasio-Cortez, the GOP's Midterm Boogeyman?
Jaime Green/The Wichita Eagle via AP
Ocasio-Cortez, the GOP's Midterm Boogeyman?
Jaime Green/The Wichita Eagle via AP
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Ron DeSantis is a Trump-endorsed congressman running in a Republican primary for governor of Florida. But during a recent campaign stop, he took aim at an opposition party candidate more than 900 miles away in Queens, N.Y.

“You look at this girl, Ocasio-Cortez or whatever she is, I mean, she’s in a totally different universe,” DeSantis told supporters, referring to the 28-year-old Democratic Socialist who last month defeated the fourth-highest-ranking Democrat in the House of Representatives, Rep. Joe Crowley. "It's basically socialism wrapped in ignorance. ... You're repeating canned left-wing talking points and you're somehow the savior of the Democratic Party? Good Lord."

DeSantis’ "this girl...or whatever she is" comment backfired, as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez struck back in a tweet proudly highlighting her Puerto Rican heritage and the tens of thousands of Puerto Ricans who relocated to Florida after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. "I'm sure these new FL voters appreciate your comments!" she wrote.

But the politics underpinning DeSantis’ overarching point highlighted how Republicans hope to make Ocasio-Cortez into a poster child for a Democratic Party portrayed as moving leftward to the point of socialism.

While the New York congressional candidate is an anomaly when it comes Democratic Socialists of America winning federal-level primaries thus far, energy within her party is mounting around policy ideas the movement espouses, including the abolishment of Immigration and Customs Enforcements, Medicare for All, a $15 an hour federal minimum wage, and tax increases for wealthy Americans. Republicans argue that the rise of Ocasio-Cortez and the way in which she is already campaigning for candidates nationwide -- and causing some friction with establishment Democrats -- provides opportunities for them to spotlight contrasts in congressional races and gin up their base against the prospect of a Democratic Congress.

"She has a money operation and an earned-media operation. ... We plan on using it as a wedge between her and other Democrats," says Matt Gorman, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. "She sows a lot of dissent in the Democratic Party, and her dipping her toe in some of these primaries could also help us."

Ocasio-Cortez campaigned with Bernie Sanders in Kansas last weekend on behalf of Army veteran and civil rights attorney James Thompson, who is running in the 4th Congressional District after an unsuccessful prior bid. And she has endorsed Brent Welder, a labor lawyer running in a crowded primary in the 3rd Congressional District. Hillary Clinton won there by  single percentage point in 2016, even as incumbent Republican Kevin Yoder won the district by 10 points, and Democrats see an opening this year. Ocasio-Cortez has also irked party leaders by endorsing Chardo Richardson, a Democratic primary opponent to Florida Rep. Stephanie Murphy.

"Bernie is the more well-known socialist, but with her as with Bernie it's really effective to position her with other candidates," Gorman says.

Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez sat together for an interview with CBS' “Face the Nation” Sunday, where they argued that their message has a wide appeal. "Whether you're in Kansas or the Bronx or in Vermont, we have common interests and common aspirations and we have got to fight for an America that works for all of us, not just the 1 percent," Sanders said.

Ocasio-Cortez said her message is mobilizing new voters: "This is about inspiring people to the polls, giving them something to vote for, creating hope for this nation, and knowing that so long as there are working-class Americans who believe in a prosperous and just future, we will have hope no matter how red the district."

But Democratic leaders are reluctant to embrace Ocasio-Cortez, who is likely to become the youngest member ever elected to Congress. “I would ask her to remember how long I had to wait to get here," South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, the third-highest-ranking Democrat in the House, told Buzzfeed News when asked about the upstart candidate becoming a party leader. Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi downplayed Ocasio-Cortez’s win over Crowley, who had expressed interest in running for speaker if Democrats reclaim the House majority. Earlier this week, the primary victor visited Capitol Hill with little fanfare.

While Democrats acknowledge the energy generated by Ocasio-Cortez, they argue that she doesn't have the name identification to make her a national symbol of the party. And it’s not clear year whether and how much Republicans are willing to invest to boost her profile. Additionally, they argue that their primaries have largely produced candidates who fit the voter makeup of their districts.

The effort to paint all Democrats as socialists "is a non-factor in a type of districts that are going to determine control of the House," one party operative told RCP.

Nevertheless, Republicans are dubbing Ocasio-Cortez the "de facto figurehead of the new Democratic Party" and are planning to highlight her positions on the campaign trail.

In an interview with Fox News this week, DeSantis defended his attacks on her. "I don’t care whether she’s an Eskimo. Socialism doesn’t work, and it’s wrong," he said. “In Florida, we have more people probably than any other state who have fled socialism, places like Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua. ... We understand socialism doesn't work."

Caitlin Huey-Burns is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at chueyburns@realclearpolitics.com. Follow her on Twitter @CHueyBurns.

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