WASHINGTON — Kirsten Gillibrand recruited Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for the congressional softball team. Julian Castro talked with the lawmaker at Netroots. Tulsi Gabbard had a meeting with her before she was even sworn in. And Andrew Yang, another 2020 candidate, is hoping to touch base with her at SXSW — if her team gets back to his.
Ocasio-Cortez, a freshman House member from New York who has been in office just over a month and at age 29 is decades younger than the average lawmaker, is the hottest name in Democratic politics. Her celebrity-status following and ability to drive entire news cycles are setting her up to play a crucial role in the 2020 election. She is already seen as a transformative figure who will be courted by Democratic presidential candidates competing against one another in a crowded field.
“I think the Democratic electorate is going to be split, as we all know, in like 15 different directions,” Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist who is a senior adviser to Bernie Sanders, told BuzzFeed News. "And AOC represents the true base of the party, which are progressives, women, Latinos … and people are just fed up, so it would be wise for Democratic candidates to try to get her support. You could see a battle royale between … Tulsi Gabbard, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren — the left wing of the party — who would love to stand onstage with AOC.”
And hers is a wide reach. Already Ocasio-Cortez has surpassed the number of Twitter followers even Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has. Unlike other lawmakers who are recognizable only on Capitol Hill, including some of the candidates for president, Ocasio-Cortez has become a household name. Jeff Link, an Iowa Democratic strategist, told BuzzFeed News he attended a couple of small focus groups with likely caucus attendees where he was “surprised” to find “everyone in the focus group knew her right away.”
Gillibrand, who announced her presidential campaign last month, is working to set up a private meeting with Ocasio-Cortez, an aide said, but noted she does so with all new congressional Democrats, especially those from New York.
A source familiar with Gabbard’s presidential campaign told BuzzFeed News that while Gabbard hasn’t discussed 2020 with Ocasio-Cortez, the two have spoken and spent time together, adding, “They have an open line of communication.” (Ocasio-Cortez’s office confirmed that the two met before Ocasio-Cortez was sworn in, but did not comment specifically on whether they communicate often.)
Speaking generally about Democratic candidates, the Gabbard source said, “Of course [Ocasio-Cortez would] be an asset to anybody.”
Corbin Trent, Ocasio-Cortez’s communications director, didn’t respond to a request for comment on the potential Gillibrand meeting, but told BuzzFeed News on Monday that as far as he’s aware, no 2020 candidate has yet reached out to Ocasio-Cortez about their campaign, and she does not have plans to reach out to any of them. (Trent did not respond to questions to verify that Yang’s team reached out for a meeting either.)
“At this point what we’re focused on is getting our team hired, working on our legislative priorities, getting our district office opened and rolling, and serving our constituents and being the best damn congressional office we can be,” Trent said Monday. Asked if Ocasio-Cortez hopes to play a role in shaping the election, Trent responded, “She wants to be good at her job as a legislator at this point. It’s an important election, and I’m sure that we’ll be keeping an eye on it as we go forward.”
Ocasio-Cortez is no stranger to presidential campaigns: She volunteered for Sen. Bernie Sanders’s 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton. In the 2018 midterms, she and Sanders campaigned together for progressive candidates.
Asked by BuzzFeed News on Monday if Sanders would be guaranteed her endorsement if he ran, Trent said, “This is nothing that we’ve thought about at this point.”
Sanders, who has not formally decided on a presidential run, similarly brushed off the issue. Asked by BuzzFeed News on Tuesday whether he had reached out to Ocasio-Cortez to discuss running in 2020, Sanders said, “We're thinking about running, so before we reach out to people we've got to make a final decision on that. It's a little bit, sorry, little speculative, OK?" Pressed further on whether they had had conversations, Sanders said, "The answer's no."
Already, however, Ocasio-Cortez has shown that she can drive the 2020 conversation.
When Julian Castro was asked in an interview with This Week With George Stephanopoulos about a comment Ocasio-Cortez made in an Anderson Cooper interview on a progressive tax rate system, he said he could “support folks at the top paying for fair share,” and suggested tax rates even higher than those she tossed out. Castro’s twin brother, Rep. Joaquin Castro, who is serving as chair of his brother’s campaign, said Julian is in the process of reaching out to lawmakers “including Alexandria” about his run.
When a college video of Ocasio-Cortez dancing was dug up by conservatives, the lawmaker embraced it by making a video of herself dancing outside of her office. Kamala Harris, who also recently announced she would run for president, was quick to go on the record to say she was for “*more* dancing in politics not less.”
Harris’s campaign did not comment when asked by BuzzFeed News whether she had reached out or planned to reach out to Ocasio-Cortez to talk about the 2020 election. Neither did Sens. Cory Booker or Elizabeth Warren’s campaigns, although the latter has aired livestreams from her kitchen notably similar to Ocasio-Cortez’s Instagram live videos.
“Clearly she has mastery of social media skills … but I think the lesson that people can learn from her is authenticity. So to some extent, if the lesson people learn from her is to copy what she does, that’s kind of almost not authentic, if you know what I mean,” former representative John Delaney, a presidential candidate, told BuzzFeed News.
Delaney said he hasn’t spoken to her himself but is sure their paths will cross in the lead-up to 2020.
“I haven’t really thought about her in the context of her role in the 2020 election," he said. "I’ve more thought about her kind of positively, in terms of the energy that she’s brought to the party and her ability to use the platform and following she developed to quite frankly shine a spotlight on some very important issues.”
Sen. Sherrod Brown, widely seen as a likely candidate to jump in the race, declined to talk strategy when BuzzFeed News asked if he had reached out to the lawmaker, but in a statement he was eager to heap praise on Ocasio-Cortez: “I’m always happy to see new leaders championing our progressive values, and I’m excited to see Representative Ocasio-Cortez energizing so many people to get involved."
Democrats will struggle this election cycle to figure out how best to counter President Donald Trump in a general election. Given that Ocasio-Cortez has consistently expressed support for far-left positions — and earned a particular ire from conservatives — moderate Democratic candidates may seek to keep some distance from her. At Trump's State of the Union address on Tuesday, the president said that "America will never be a socialist country," widely interpreted as a dig at Ocasio-Cortez. Asked to respond afterward, Ocasio-Cortez told reporters, “I thought it was great. I think he’s scared. ... Yeah, I thought it was fabulous, it shows that we got under his skin.”
There’s also the question of what the most effective way to wield her power is. An aide to another Democrat thinking about running for president suggested that Ocasio-Cortez would be smart not to pick a candidate, but an issue, and “hold candidates’ feet to the fire.”
“I think hers is an important voice, but we should not be letting one individual set the policy platforms for an entire presidential campaign,” the aide said, but added that Bernie Sanders had showed “you shouldn’t underestimate someone who has that kind of following.”