Sitting on the sidewalk in the rain, hours before Sen. Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would stump for Brent Welder, a progressive candidate running in Kansas’s 3rd Congressional District, a young woman wearing a pristinely white “Ocasio-Cortez” T-shirt fielded questions from the people in line around her.
“Did you vote for Alexandria?”
“How’d you get here?”
“Did you fly in from New York just for...this?”
“Are you from New York?”
She smiled, shook her head, and laughed. “Yeah, I’m from Manhattan — Manhattan, Kansas.”
Her shirt and support for Ocasio-Cortez — some 1,000-odd miles away from the New York district that helped her topple Rep. Joe Crowley, a powerful figure in the Democratic Party — is emblematic of the swell of progressive energy surrounding her in the weeks after her victory that’s swiftly her propelled into national prominence.
And so on Friday, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez campaigned in Wichita for one Bernie-backed candidate, James Thompson, then continued on to Kansas City, where hours before the event, people waited in line outside on a muggy day to see them. A namecheck of Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders alone prior to the rally drew nearly the same level of deafeningly raucous cheers from the nearly 2,000 people in the ballroom as when they arrived.
Sanders has campaigned widely over the last three years, but this was new for Ocasio-Cortez — and voters told BuzzFeed News that part of the reason they were so into the event was seeing Sanders, 76, alongside Ocasio-Cortez, 28.
“I see her as the future — I’m hoping Bernie runs in 2020 — but I think she’s the future of the party. That’s the way our country’s going and the way our future’s going,” Christopher Sponn, a Sanders fan, said after the rally.
In 2016, Sanders consistently polled better with younger Democratic voters across demographics, even in ones where he still had less support than Hillary Clinton. In Kansas City on Friday, people told BuzzFeed News they were excited to see Ocasio-Cortez campaign with Sanders especially because they think someone like her shows the Democratic Party that the generational and racial political divide is real, and that the party needs to change to reflect those politics. And when some of the left’s standard bearers are white men in their 60s and 70s, big names who are younger (and browner) with potentially decades of politics ahead of them, are important for making the cause a reality.
“She definitely represents a younger, more progressive wing of the party that I think is becoming the base of the Democratic Party,” Maggie Munn, the woman with the Ocasio-Cortez shirt, later told BuzzFeed News, saying that she had primarily come to see Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez speak.
“It’s great to see candidates like her and Bernie come to flyover country and show Kansas what progressive politics is about,” Mark Dillman, who had traveled from Topeka to see Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders speak, told BuzzFeed News. “The goal is to see the Democratic Party be pulled as far left as possible. Having Alexandria here shows that we can do that.”
Friday was the first time that Ocasio-Cortez tested her progressive message on the trail outside Queens and the Bronx, where she ran a campaign sharply centered on local issues, combined with some old and new, Democratic Socialists of America–influenced progressive ideas — like abolishing ICE. In Kansas City, she emphasized the organizing principles and progressive policies popular on the left, like Medicare for All, and tuition-free college: “If you have never knocked on a door before I am talking to you. If you have never picked up a phone to phone bank before I’m talking to you. If you have never voted before I’m talking to you and I’m inviting you to the table, because it’s in your hands that the destiny of this nation will be decided.”
But she also talked about Kansas’s history as “a crucible of the progressive movement,” while digging into the state's history of racial justice, noting that “it was 13 mothers and fathers from Topeka that desegregated the schools of this nation."
Ocasio-Cortez, practically overnight, became a national name last month, and immediately directed the attention on her outward onto other candidates who are proposing similar politics, especially candidates of color who are emphasizing this kind of an intersectional approach to race and class.
Just minutes after her win, she was already endorsing other candidates, like Cori Bush — whom she’ll stump for in St. Louis on Saturday afternoon — and others challenging Democratic incumbents, like Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts and Chardo Richardson in Florida.
“It was really unexpected when she said my name in her victory speech,” Bush, who’s running against Democratic incumbent Rep. Lacy Clay, recently told BuzzFeed News. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime moment — we were doing well before, but after that we were doing great.”