It took approximately 14 seconds after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking victory became official on Tuesday night for the 28-year-old Queens Democratic Socialist to be widely declared a major new figure for the Democratic Party’s future. Her win over party honcho Joe Crowley wasn’t just a “political earthquake” that turned her into a “giant slayer”— it was a moment that “will reverberate around the Democratic political world for months — and maybe even years — to come,” chatterers proclaimed, heralding a “new era of Democrats” in which “the rusting and reluctant political establishment will wake up or be woken.” Within the context of the exiled party’s Trump-era ideological tug-of-war, the result was greeted as an even more significant inflection point, as the battlefield appeared to tilt decidedly toward the progressives.
But the people commonly thought to be the generals in that battle for the future of the modern left — the potential 2020 presidential contenders — were nowhere near the front. That crowd was quick to celebrate Ocasio-Cortez on Tuesday night and Wednesday, yet her win also set off a scramble among the party-leader set in D.C. to figure out the best way of contacting her to offer congratulations, in the first place. Not one of them, after all, had endorsed her beforehand.
It’s the opposite of shocking that White House wannabes would overlook an unheralded insurgent running a long-shot bid against a member of party leadership. It is, however, closely related to a broader pattern that’s elevated political caution over stances that could lead to uncomfortable clashes. While the struggle to define the future of the Democratic Party is unfolding in public, in high-profile primary after primary, the party’s potential standard-bearers are opting against any high-profile fights against each other in the 2018 arena. In fact, while many from the potential 2020 crowd — from Bernie Sanders to Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker to Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris to Terry McAuliffe to Joe Biden — are spending significant time raising money and campaigning for down-ballot hopefuls in 2018, including some underdogs, not once this year have two of the possible presidential candidates endorsed or laid down political capital against another one’s pick in any of the more hotly contested, or ideologically charged, races that could have tangible effects on the party’s direction.
It’s not like there haven’t been ample opportunities to disagree in influential ways.
Each of the first four states to hold presidential nominating contests — states toward which presidential hopefuls would normally flock —have seen high-flying Democratic gubernatorial primaries this year, yet not one major 2020 contender endorsed a candidate in Iowa, New Hampshire, or Nevada, and only Biden got behind a candidate, his longtime ally James Smith, in South Carolina. He got not a peep of opposition from his potential campaign-trail foes. Other intraparty contests have been framed nationally as contests for the left’s soul. Yet in Georgia, the presidential hopefuls who eventually weighed in on the closely watched gubernatorial primary between Stacey Abrams and Stacey Evans all wound up on the same side of the equation: behind Abrams, who could now become the country’s first African-American woman governor after beating Evans.
When multiple potential White House contenders have lined up behind the same candidate in these races, it’s often the one who’s promising more of a leftward turn. In Illinois’s Third Congressional District, many supported Marie Newman, who came up short in her bid to unseat conservative Democratic congressman Dan Lipinski. None backed Lipinski. Harris and Warren both backed Katie Porter in California’s 45th District free-for-all that became a national referendum on the party’s ability to reach suburban voters, and no potential 2020 candidate backed any of her three Democratic primary rivals. (Porter won.) Booker and Harris were both behind former NAACP president Ben Jealous, a close Sanders ally, in his successful bid for Democrats’ nomination to be governor of Maryland. None backed Prince George’s County executive Rushern Baker. The list goes on. In the race for the party nomination in Iowa’s Third Congressional District, widely read as a test of the party’s leftward lurch, Sanders backed his former state director Pete D’Alessandro, but, again, no one stepped in to support his opposition. (D’Alessandro lost.) At least two more major upcoming races pitting establishment-minded Democrats against progressive challengers would appear to offer clear opportunities for the 2020 crowd to make waves, but none has taken sides in either Michigan’s or Florida’s gubernatorial primaries. The only notable exception to this rule so far has been the race for the party nod in Texas’s Dallas-area 32nd District, where Gillibrand backed Lillian Salerno and Harris sided with Colin Allred, the eventual winner. But their disagreement was hardly noticed: Harris only backed Allred one day before Election Day, in May.
If anyone has come close to breaking the mold it’s Sanders, who didn’t back Ocasio-Cortez in advance, but whose campaign provided the political context for her rise. Yet he has, time and again, made clear that Our Revolution, the political group born of his 2016 campaign, issues its endorsements separately from him — their nods explicitly don’t come with his imprimatur. When the group backed Dennis Kucinich against Warren ally Richard Cordray to be the Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Ohio, Sanders went out of his way to explain that he wouldn’t follow suit. Our Revolution has backed Cynthia Nixon against Andrew Cuomo; Sanders hasn’t, while Biden has raised money for Cuomo’s reelection.
None of this is to say that the potential presidential candidates always agree: Their policy differences are significant, whether it’s on bread-and-butter primary issues like health care or emerging flash points like whether to abolish ICE (Gillibrand: yes, Sanders: not yet). And part of the hesitance to engage in pre-2020 electoral proxy warfare comes from senators’ tacit agreement to focus their energies on Senate seats. Democrats are protecting far more competitive Senate seats than they have pickup opportunities, and no actually competitive Senate primaries emerged this year, in the first place.
Furthermore, the possible contenders are not just wary of making unnecessary bets on long-shot candidates whose eventual losses could turn into political embarrassment for their endorsers, they are also actively worried about painting targets on their own backs for activists within their own party who disagree with them, long before the 2020 primary season even begins.
“In a world where there is such a premium on authenticity and rationale, you don’t gain points with voters for releasing 30 endorsements around the country when they’re well aware you probably know very little, if anything, about those candidates,” explained Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, a former Hillary Clinton aide and an ex-senior official at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It doesn’t show a deep commitment to anything to have your political director write you a list. Are there opportunities, moments, former staffers, allies, people you believe in that you should get involved in? For sure, but pick your spots and approach it with a rifle, not a shotgun, because there isn’t a massive divide that compels you to get involved everywhere, and there isn’t an upside when voters see scattershot involvement as proof that you’re more interested in pandering than progress.”
For all the pundit-driven speculation that a wide-open 2020 on the left could look like Republicans’ 2016, then, it’s partly that precise wariness — bordering on fear — thus far keeping Democrats from a four-year melee.
At this point in 2014, after all, potential GOP presidential hopefuls were already splitting over at least one intensely watched statewide race that was billed as a contest to define the future of the right. That May, Jeb Bush, Rand Paul, and Mike Huckabee all backed different candidates in North Carolina’s Senatorial primary.
Not that coming out on top in that fight actually meant much for the GOP’s path forward, or for the viability of the victor’s endorser.
Bush’s candidate won.