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Are socialist candidates the future of the Democratic Party?

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the winner of a Democratic Congressional primary in New York, reacts to a passerby, Wednesday, June 27, 2018, in New York. Ocasio-Cortez, 28, upset U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley in Tuesday's election. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

When the 28-year-old self-declared democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated the 10-term incumbent and fourth-highest ranking House Democrat Joe Crowley, some on the left interpreted it as a gut-check moment.

On Tuesday, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez embraced the socialist candidate as "the future" of the Democratic Party.

In an interview with liberal radio host Bill Press, Perez spoke of his college-age daughters' reaction to Ocasio-Cortez's stunning upset. "They were both texting me about their excitement over Alexandria because she really — she represents the future of our party."

Ocasio-Cortez ran on a populist, anti-establishment platform calling for universal healthcare, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, creating a federal job guarantee, free college education and curbing the influence of money in politics.

Many Democrats rejected the idea that the upset in New York represented a bigger trend in the party. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., dismissed the win as an isolated event, insisting, "They made a choice in one district."

Asked if the Ocasio-Cortez's victory foreshadowed a socialist future for the Democratic Party, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia, who formerly chaired the DNC and was Hillary Clinton's 2016 running mate, argued, "You shouldn't over-interpret it. She's a really good match for her district."

Chairman of the House Progressive Caucus, Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz., said the party's future depends on being "strong on those issues" raised in the New York 14th District primary.

Citing President Donald Trump's aggressive messaging tactics that have mobilized the Republican base, Grijalva warned it "would be a mistake for our party" to not have a similarly strong message.

"Trump is doing everything he can to keep his third of the electorate energized," Grijalva said, "We need to do the same."

Chair of the House Democratic Caucus Linda Sanchez of California told reporters on Wednesday that the Democratic Party stand to learn from Ocasio-Cortez.

"No doubt she has some fresh perspectives that I think are important for the caucus to talk about," she said of the candidate's platform.

Some liberals worry that a shift too far to the left may impact the Democrats' chances of retaking the political center and winning purple states. "I don't think you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest," Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois recently said in a CNN interview.

Those concerns have also prompted the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and members of the House Democratic leadership to push far-left candidates to drop out of competitive races or fund more moderate opponents.

In a report by The Intercept, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., was secretly recorded repeatedly asking a progressive Colorado candidate to leave the race so a more centrist candidate could take on the incumbent Republican, Mike Coffman.

Republicans, including President Trump, have encouraged the Democrats' shift to the far-left, claiming it will mean victory for Republicans in 2018 and beyond. After a handful of prominent Democrats joined Ocasio-Cortez's call to "abolish ICE," President Trump urged his political opponents to campaign on the message, saying, "they're going to get beaten so badly."

Other Democratic politicians may not have adopted the label of socialists but are championing policies that were previously relegated to the far-left fringes.

For example, a number of Democratic senators rumored to be seeking a presidential run in 2020 have called for Medicare For All (universal healthcare), federally-funded higher education and a "guaranteed jobs program" to create a floor for wages and benefits.

Senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Cory Booker of New Jersey have all signed on to separate bills promoting those programs that are particularly popular among younger voters who more readily identify as socialist.

A Harvard poll from 2016 found the majority (51 percent) of millennials, America's largest demographic group, do not support capitalism. Another 33 percent identified themselves as socialists.

More recent polls have suggested socialism may enjoy even more support from younger Americans, though it is unclear how well the concept and its history are understood.

Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., argued that the issue is not about socialism but popular frustration with "a rigged system."

"There are Americans right now who are hurting," Booker said, "They want people who will stand up and represent folks and fight on real issues that matter in their lives...Whatever label you want to put on that, that's fine."

At the state level, the Democratic Party has also seen a rise in socialist candidates.

In Maryland, gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous won his primary last month on a democratic socialist platform. In Pennsylvania, two incumbent Democratic state lawmakers were unseated in May by political newcomers backed by the Democratic Socialists of America.


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