Inside the Democratic Party's reinvention

Many consider Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts the faces of a new Democratic Party. Around the country, Democrats are pushing boundaries to bring more progressive policies to their states, but no one is sure where it will lead.

Bill Sikes/AP
Ayanna Pressley, winner of Massachusetts' 7th Congressional District Democratic primary, speaks at a Democratic Party event in Boston Sept. 5.

The Democratic makeover is in full swing.

With just a few primaries remaining before the decisive midterm elections in November, voters have dramatically reshaped the Democratic Party to become younger, more diverse, and unquestionably liberal.

The latest turn came Tuesday in Massachusetts, where Boston City Councilor Ayanna Pressley, 44, trounced 10-term congressman Mike Capuano, 66, in a Democratic primary. It reprised a June primary upset in which self-proclaimed democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, toppled New York congressman Joe Crowley, one of the House Democrats' top leaders. They join minority candidates like Democratic gubernatorial nominees Stacey Abrams of Georgia and Andrew Gillum of Florida and a host of younger white candidates – including dozens of women and a gaggle of veterans – who are offering voters an antidote to President Trump.

"We are at a crossroads," Ms. Pressley declared during a party unity rally Wednesday. "This can be our darkest hour or it can be our finest."

Outsider candidates are taking on establishment-aligned Democratic incumbents in the final primaries of the season over the coming week in states such as Delaware and Rhode Island.

Victories by candidates such as Pressley and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez have generated substantial grass-roots energy. But they've also raised questions about whether the party will be able to compete in broad swaths of the country, a potential vulnerability Republicans are eager to exploit. There's also debate over what a younger, more diverse class of lawmakers might mean for the fate of congressional leaders such as House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi and potential 2020 presidential candidates who are older and white, including former Vice President Joe Biden.

"2020 is going to be about who voters want best to stand up to Trump and to take on Trump," said Ben Tulchin, who worked as a pollster for Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016. "You're going to have to have an authentically progressive message and to be able to communicate that."

For now, Democratic leaders are embracing the enthusiasm of their base – even as it's unclear where it will lead.

"The energy and momentum and the strength is clearly on our side," said Rep. Ben Ray Lujan of New Mexico, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "There's nothing more unifying than winning back the House of Representatives and restoring checks and balances."

Democrats' leftward lurch looks different contest to contest. Representative Capuano and Representative Crowley are reliable liberals, but Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez often go further, with full-throated calls for single-payer government health insurance and abolishing US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. Coming from heavily Democratic districts, Pressley and Ocasio-Cortez won't determine whether Democrats pick up the 23 new seats necessary for a House majority. But they will affect the makeup of the Democratic caucus and what its priorities might be on issues from health care and immigration to potential impeachment proceedings against Trump once a special counsel investigation presents its findings.

Elsewhere, Democratic nominees represent a clear shift from the status quo even if they aren't as left-leaning as Ocasio-Cortez. Congressional nominees like Iowa's Abby Finkenauer or Arkansas' Clarke Tucker were the more moderate choices in their respective primaries, but are now trying to topple Republican incumbents with calls for a public option health insurance plan to compete alongside for-profit insurers.

Ms. Abrams, the Georgia Democrat who'd be the nation's first black woman elected governor, stops short of single-payer health care and abolishing ICE but promises to expand Medicaid insurance and keep Georgia's state resources from aiding mass deportation efforts.

And dozens of Democratic candidates for federal and state offices – regardless of their positions on ICE, health care, or impeachment – have sworn off corporate campaign cash.

The embrace of those positions among primary voters has activists on the left looking forward to upcoming primaries in Delaware, where Kerri Evelyn Harris, a black gay woman, is challenging moderate incumbent Democrat Tom Carper on Thursday. In New York, actress Cynthia Nixon will try on Sept. 13 to oust Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo. It's unclear whether any of these outsider candidates will enjoy the same success as Pressley or Ocasio-Cortez.

The overall trend has been a wakeup call on Capitol Hill and thrilled leaders of the anti-Trump resistance and the grass-roots left.

Stefanie Brown James, co-founder of Collective PAC, which supports African-American candidates, praised Pressley as an example of a new assertiveness that goes beyond policy. "I think that for so long, a lot of us who are Democrats have felt like, 'Dude, where's the fight back? ... Where's the toughness?' " she said. "You're seeing candidates who are brash and aggressive and are like, 'No, we're not going to wait.' "

Crowley, who'd been viewed as a possible future House speaker before his defeat, said Wednesday he was "sad" for Capuano, but celebrated "the engagement and the activity that it's causing and the fervor that is forming [among] young people, women."

Certainly, there is some political risk in Democrats' approach, particularly if November draws a typical midterm electorate that is older, whiter and more conservative than presidential-year electorates.

"We all know the fight for the majority runs through the suburbs. It doesn't run through the inner city," said Republican Rep. Steve Stivers of Ohio, who leads the GOP's House campaign committee. "It's the suburbs that matter, and their extreme agenda doesn't sell."

House Democrats implicitly acknowledge the potential divide, with the DCCC this week launching a series of ads and attacks on health care. Noticeably, they focused mostly on Republican votes that would strip existing protections for policy holders with existing health problems – the ads avoid any mention of single-payer proposals or even a public option.

Likewise, Representative Pelosi has begun unveiling her strategy for a Democratic majority. And while it's focused generally on helping working- and middle-class households, it's decidedly not the wish list of the grass-roots left.

Those tensions could come to a head if Pelosi struggles to be elected speaker. Even if she wins, it could be difficult for her to preside over a more liberal caucus.

Ms. James, of the Collective PAC, said that's exactly the idea.

"The status quo to me doesn't mean getting rid of people who have been in office a long time," she said. "It means you can't have the same mentality, you can't have the same goals. You can't have the same playbook. You've got to switch it up."

This story was reported by The Associated Press. Bill Barrow reported from Atlanta. AP writers Alan Fram and Kevin Freking in Washington and Steve LeBlanc in Boston contributed to this report.

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