Ocasio-Cortez says she isn't putting moderate Democrats in a tough spot. They disagree




 

WASHINGTON - Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the progressive superstar who has captured an enthusiastic following, disputed charges from moderate Democrats that she is making it harder for them to win re-election in 2020.

Ocasio-Cortez, who represents a deep blue district, told USA TODAY that she hasn't used her platform to call out individual Democrats for not signing onto the progressive policies she champions.

"I haven't put pressure on them specifically," the New York Democrat said Friday. "We have an opportunity right now to have a national conversation and to move the entire country and raise the consciousness of the entire country to a better place. I'm not speaking to that member to change, I'm speaking to their districts, and I'm trying to have a conversation with the electorate."

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Rifts within parties are nothing new. During their eight years in the majority, Republicans dealt with the rise of the House Freedom Caucus, a group of conservative lawmakers that pulled legislation to the right. Moderate Republicans who lost their seats in November are still bitter. And there's President Donald Trump, who - like Ocasio-Cortez - uses Twitter to speak directly to his base, often sending members of his party scrambling to keep up.

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Democrats have not been immune either. Liberals and moderates battled in the early 2000s over how to shape policy - including what became the Affordable Care Act. Then Democrats, many of them moderates, were wiped out in the 2010 election. Now they're back in power, thanks to dozens of Democrats who won in red and purple districts. Those representatives want to hold onto their seats, but they're fighting to separate themselves from a progressive wing of the party that has become expert at using social media to draw attention to their policies.

USA TODAY talked to more than a dozen Democratic members, aides and strategists across the political spectrum and found there is broad agreement on the need to expand background checks for gun owners, protect immigrants and combat climate change. But some moderates say that the approach Ocasio-Cortez has taken on these topics has been unrealistic and it has left little room for the bipartisan compromise they promised voters during midterm campaigns.

They are also irritated at Ocasio-Cortez's willingness to use her personal platform - nearly 3.5 million followers on Twitter and a nationwide following - to go after members of her own party. Even House progressives who like her policies don't know what to make of her approach.

Some members who went on the record declined to address Ocasio-Cortez specifically. Other aides and members asked for anonymity to speak candidly because they didn't want to be seen as promoting stories about fractures in the party. Some were nervous about being on the receiving end of criticism from Ocasio-Cortez and her supporters.

Courage looks different

After a group of moderate Democrats broke with their party on an immigration-related gun measure last month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scolded them behind closed doors. She urged members to be courageous and stick with their party.

Ocasio-Cortez, who represents a deep blue district, took it a step further. She warned lawmakers that she had alerted left-wing activists that 26 members had voted with Republicans, according to two aides who were in the room.

Then Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, a freshman Democrat who represents a red district in New Mexico, countered, saying that courage looks different in different places.

Trump won Torres Small's district by 10 percentage points in 2016, and the Democrat is listed as a GOP target in 2020. Torres Small's office would not elaborate on the meeting other than to say that the account of her remarks, first reported in Politico, was accurate.

The following week, Ocasio-Cortez doubled down on Twitter saying that Democrats who voted with Republicans were making decisions based on a "racist + false trope that Latino immigrants are more dangerous than US born citizens."

Ocasio-Cortez told USA TODAY that she did not send specific names to her supporters. She did, however, point out that the results of the vote were public. She said she had reached out to left-wing activists to be "proactive" because she expected constituents from her heavily immigrant district to be angry about her vote after an amendment required U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to be notified if a person fails a background check because of being in the country illegally.

"The addition of the (amendment) added a toxic anti-immigrant to a clean gun safety bill," Ocasio-Cortez said. "It forced myself and a very large amount of members to have to vote for an anti-immigrant amendment. So that puts me in a tough spot, too, you know? It's not just about, you know, do 20 people have to take a tough vote? It's that 200 people had to take a tough vote. So now ... I have to go back to my district and explain to my community why I voted, why I was forced to vote for an anti-immigrant amendment."

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Rep. Mikie Sherrill, a freshman Democrat from New Jersey who voted for the amendment, said it made sense for anyone who supported expanding background checks.

"I want to make sure that people who are citizens of this country don't have access to firearms illegally, and the people who are not citizens of this country don't have illegal access to firearms," Sherrill said.

Sherrill's New Jersey colleague Rep. Josh Gottheimer, co-chair of the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, said that Democrats won back the majority "through the middle, through districts like mine. And so we need to make sure that, you know, we recognize that all districts are different.

"What we can't do is say who belongs in the party and who doesn't."

New approach

Even House progressives who agree with Ocasio-Cortez's policies - and like having someone to gin up energy on the issues - aren't sure what to make of her approach.

"In my experience it has never really been productive in the past," Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said about Ocasio-Cortez's public shaming of members of the same party. Grijalva is the former chair of the Progressive Caucus and supports much of the agenda Ocasio-Cortez is pushing.

"But that's her political call, the consequences are hers," he said.

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Political consequences

Republicans already are trying to saddle vulnerable Democrats with Ocasio-Cortez's views.

"Every candidate is going to be associated with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez," Michael McAdams a spokesman for the House Republicans' campaign arm said.

Recognizing the strategy, one aide to a new member who flipped a Republican seat, said if the aide's boss was placed next to Ocasio-Cortez at a news conference, the aide would try to move the lawmaker to avoid photographs of the two together. The aide was concerned a photo could be used by a Republican opponent during a re-election campaign.

Green New Deal catnip for GOP

The Green New Deal, the sweeping environmental resolution introduced by Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., has become catnip for Republicans.

Supporters of the nonbinding resolution say it illustrates a vision for a cleaner environment and promotes jobs and social justice. But Republicans say that vision will bankrupt the country.

Some Democrats say the rollout was botched when an information page was posted that talked about eliminating air travel and cow flatulence. The page has since been taken down, but Republicans have not forgotten.

Former Rep. Carlos Curbelo - a moderate Republican who lost his Florida seat in November - said all Democrats should be worried.

"My sympathies to them," Curbelo said.

Curbelo blames the far-right of his party for shifting legislation so far from the mainstream that it no longer appealed to voters in his district.

"You cannot work hard enough to distinguish yourself because these members at the extremes of the political spectrum will always be at an advantage in terms of generating attention, getting on national television, getting retweeted," Curbelo said.

Some veteran Democratic strategists say endangered lawmakers shouldn't be so worried. Ocasio-Cortez is getting people excited about Democratic ideas, even though proposals will ultimately vary on details. Plus, they say, all of the Democrats who represent red and purple districts did a good job of sidestepping another bogeywoman during their last election.

Republicans pounded Democrats with ads about ties to Pelosi, whom they accused of being a "San Francisco liberal." Yet, Democrats were still able to flip the House.

The GOP strategy "is not a strategy that worked in 2018. I don't believe it is a strategy that will work going forward," said Brad Woodhouse, a Democratic strategist and former spokesman for the Democratic National Committee.

"And really, to take Republican criticism and let it live by lending it credence, doesn't do anybody in the party any good," Woodhouse said.

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Contributing: Ledyard King, Bart Jansen, Maureen Groppe

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Ocasio-Cortez says she isn't putting moderate Democrats in a tough spot. They disagree

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