Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) had heard enough.
Shortly after Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-VA) vented about progressives nearly destroying the Democrats’ House majority in a strongly worded phone conversation with colleagues—one that instantly leaked to the press—Ocasio-Cortez decided she had to hit back, quickly and publicly. She immediately worked out an interview with New York Times and then with CNN.
In interviews with The Daily Beast, multiple sources with knowledge of the newly re-elected congresswoman’s thinking said that the Saturday Q&A with the newspaper was a direct response to Spanberger’s remarks, which were amplified by other moderates over the weekend. By going to the Times, she was performing both rapid response to the proliferating post-election narrative that the left cost the party seats and sounding an alarm about tactical, fixable problems within the Democratic Party.
She also was, in effect, unleashing the left’s opening salvo against Democratic centrists in a war that all sides expect will rage throughout the Biden years, this time about their backwards approach to campaigning in competitive areas across the country.
“100 percent of it’s planned and strategic,” said a source with insight into Ocasio-Cortez’s messaging style. “If she’s out there taking shots in the New York Times, it’s going to be easier for WFP, PCCC, Justice Democrats down the line,” the source added, referencing the grassroots organizations the Working Families Party and the Progressive Campaign Change Committee.
On Nov. 5, before the race had been officially called, narrowly, in Spanberger’s favor, she said angrily on the call that “we lost members who shouldn’t have lost,” starting on what ended up being a lengthy diagnosis of the perceived errors leading up to Election Day from the left flank.
“We need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again,” she said. “Because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of that.” She went on to lambaste the slogan “defund the police” as causing more losses in the lower chamber, a message strongly endorsed by the third-highest-ranking elected Democrat in the House, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn (D-SC).
After Spanberger threw what was considered to be a grenade, progressives quickly mobilized.
Going to the Times made sense. Back in April, Ocasio-Cortez selected the paper as a medium to discuss the issues she thought were defining the party, but that weren’t getting enough serious attention. In the Q&A, she divulged that the Biden campaign had not yet contacted her and reiterated problems she detected in segments of his outreach to key constituencies, including Latinos.
This time, the implications stretched beyond just a sting from Spanberger and some bad press. She stressed the importance of using better digital functions, which have helped candidates win certain districts, while also mentioning Democrats who won their campaigns by running as tried-and-true progressives, like incoming Reps. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) and Cori Bush (D-MO).
“We know about extreme vulnerabilities in how Democrats run campaigns,” she told the paper. “I have been defeating Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee-run campaigns for two years. That’s how I got to Congress.”
Analyzing the Spanberger call, progressive allies pointed to both the short- and long-term effects of negatively and, in their view, prematurely, pinning down-ballot losses of several moderate representatives to the left wing in a public setting, a sentiment that Ocasio-Cortez herself shared. A second progressive aide agreed; the story was “definitely a reaction to Spanberger.”
On Sunday, in an appearance on CNN, she said: “When we kind of come out swinging not 48 hours after Tuesday, and we don’t even have solid data yet, pointing fingers and telling each other what to do, it deepens the division in the party,” adding that, “It’s irresponsible to pour gasoline on what is already very delicate tensions in the party.”
More fuel came pouring in from outside. On Saturday, former Ohio Gov. John Kasich, a Republican who has long boosted Biden, told the same network: “The Democrats have to make it clear to the far left that they almost cost him this election,” prompting an instant rebuke from Ocasio-Cortez in defense of minority organizers who helped bag wins up and down the ballot.
“A lot of what you’re seeing is jockeying for influence in the party,” the progressive aide said. “People are trying to shape the public opinion about how to read the results.”
It’s a fight that feels particularly pressing, both to progressives and moderates, because of the upcoming special elections in Georgia, where Democrats are fighting for control of the Senate after what appears to be a slim victory there for Biden.
“I think she’s extremely concerned about the tactics in Georgia because that’s still in the balance,” said Saikat Chakrabarti, Ocasio-Cortez’s former chief of staff. “I think if Georgia wasn’t there I don’t know if this would have been a long-form interview,” he said about the Times.
“I think it probably would have been some tweets or maybe wouldn’t have happened at all. It feels extremely high stakes.”
They’re not the only stakes, however. When progressives largely agreed to join the far-flung coalition to defeat President Donald Trump, they signaled their intention, both in private and in public, to push Biden to the left “immediately” after the election—on everything from policy priorities to Cabinet picks. A third source familiar with Ocasio-Cortez’s thinking is now concerned that those forthcoming decisions in Bidenworld could be poorly impacted by the ripple effect from Spanberger’s remarks, hence the early and hot fire.
“They can’t just keep belittling her and the squad and thinking what she says doesn’t matter,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist, about moderates casting aside the New York representative’s concerns as illegitimate or too lofty. “She is the future.”