Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was campaigning for Bernie Sanders at a jampacked beach-side rally last week when she took a moment to look beyond 2020.
“I know, and we all know, that this isn’t just about Bernie Sanders,” she said. “This is about a movement that has been decades in the making.”
ince endorsing him in October, Ocasio-Cortez has become a supercharged surrogate for Sanders in early-voting and delegate-rich states. As she’s drawn massive crowds alongside the Vermont senator in Iowa, Nevada, California and New York, progressive insiders and activists are increasingly whispering about Ocasio-Cortez inheriting the movement one day — and running for the White House with it behind her.
“The future of the Democratic Party is not Pete Buttigieg. It’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” said Will Rodriguez-Kennedy, president of the California Young Democrats, which has endorsed Sanders. “She has gripped the attention of fellow millennials across the country. The Green New Deal has changed the conversation on environmental action in the Democratic Party.”
While the two democratic socialists are hyperfocused on 2020, some political operatives see their joint appearances as also laying the groundwork for a possible Ocasio-Cortez bid one day, purposefully or not. They’ve shown that she can excite Democrats in critical early-voting states.
The largest crowds at any presidential candidate event this year featured Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez. The events have allowed Ocasio-Cortez to hone her stump speech, which is not focused solely on Sanders and often includes long passages about her progressive vision. In one instance, she gave a keynote talk at a Las Vegas town hall for the campaign — delivered in Spanish — without Sanders present.
Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez’s fans have also begun thinking about AOC 2024 or 2028. At their rally in Los Angeles, chiropractor Samuel Aguilera predicted that Ocasio-Cortez will eventually run for the White House: “In fact, I’m excited about that. She’s intelligent. I’ve got three daughters, and I’m excited that she’s opening up our opportunities for women.” Another audience member at the event shouted “Ocasio-Cortez 2020!” as she spoke.
Of course, the country’s appetite for electing a democratic socialist next year is impossible to guess, let alone in eight years. The Democratic establishment has been taking Sanders’ prospects of winning more seriously in recent weeks, but many party insiders believe primary voters will ultimately reject a democratic socialist as its standard-bearer.
But none of that has suppressed the chatter about Ocasio-Cortez’s future. The buzz has only increased as Sanders has enjoyed a comeback in the months since his heart attack, winning key endorsements and leapfrogging progressive rival Elizabeth Warren in national and early-state polls. In some cases, elected and party officials said Ocasio-Cortez’s nod helped persuade them to back Sanders.
“It’s certainly helpful to him to have AOC’s support,” said Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, who is neutral in the primary. “It reminded folks of his strength and support that he received in 2016.”
But Ocasio-Cortez, he added, doesn’t need anyone to help her test-run a presidential bid: “I think her talent and her skills are her own, and I think that they speak for something. I don’t think she needs anybody to promote her. She has that ability herself.”
Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ longtime adviser, did not directly respond when asked whether Sanders is positioning Ocasio-Cortez as a protégé, but he took the opportunity to heap praise on her.
“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is a leader in the progressive movement,” he said. “She is broadly popular, frankly, among Democratic voters. She is particularly strong with young voters, voters of color. She’s an important national voice and adding her weight to the political revolution is a real coup for us.”
In November, Sanders told ABC that if Ocasio-Cortez would “play a very, very important role — no question” if he becomes president. He has taken to sometimes referencing remarks by Ocasio-Cortez during his speeches. Over the weekend, they answered questions together on Instagram Live.
“They have an ease of comfort with each other, a personal fondness,” said Jonathan Tasini, author of “The Essential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America” and a national surrogate for Sanders in 2016. “Politics is a human endeavor. When people are on the campaign trail, it’s really important for a candidate to be dealing with someone they’re comfortable with.”
Waleed Shahid, a former aide to Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, said the politicians’ recent swing through California would help Sanders to continue building up his operation in the Super Tuesday state and expand his strong position among Latino voters. He typically polls first or second place in surveys of Latino Democrats.
“AOC is popular among many diverse constituencies in the Democratic base, and particularly among unlikely voters,” said Shahid.
If Ocasio-Cortez ever does run for president, she’s certain to face competition for Sanders’ base in the Democratic Party. She would have to reckon as well with the fact that Republicans are already putting in the work of driving down her favorability rating, much as they did to Hillary Clinton over several decades. Since 2018, Republican candidates across the country have used Ocasio-Cortez as a foil in TV ads and mailings.
A spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez did not provide a comment for this story.
A battle to be the millennial face of the Democratic Party is already underway. Pete Buttigieg is polling first in Iowa, according to the RealClearPolitics average, and attracting large crowds in the state.
Over the weekend, Ocasio-Cortez took a thinly veiled shot at Buttigieg at a rally with Sanders. At last week’s presidential debate here, Buttigieg had chided Warren for implementing “purity tests” about campaign financing. Though she didn’t name him, Ocasio-Cortez said, “For anyone who accuses us for instituting purity tests, it’s called having values. It’s called giving a damn. It’s called having standards for your conduct to not be funded by billionaires.”
Buttigieg later shot back, “I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t have values and give a damn.” It wasn’t the first time they’ve tussled: Ocasio-Cortez and Buttigieg got into a back-and-forth about small-dollar fundraising in October.
“They are fighting generationally for the direction of the party,” said a Sanders ally.
Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders’ allies are optimistic about her chances in that feud. Rodriguez-Kennedy sees the future as likely playing out in a few different ways.
“One, Sen. Sanders wins, and then his coalition could be up for grabs. It could be AOC’s. Or two, if we don’t make it, who builds that coalition moving forward?” But, he added: “I don’t think we’re going to have to worry about the latter.”
By: Kyle Barrett