Ocasio-Cortez emerges as GOP’s new foe at conservative confab

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The nation's largest annual gathering of conservative activists has a new favorite political villain: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezSanders, Omar to hit campaign trail in New Hampshire Ocasio-Cortez: 'Won't you look at that: Amazon is coming to NYC anyway' House approves two-state resolution in implicit rebuke of Trump MORE (D-N.Y.).

The progressive firebrand and self-described democratic socialist was a nearly ubiquitous target for speakers at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) this week.

From Vice President Pence to conservative pundits and activists, this year's conference illustrated a ramped-up strategy from the White House and top Republican figures to condemn what they characterize as a creeping form of socialism in the U.S.

“With AOC we can't take her for granted. We can't think that the American people understand what socialism is. We do have to go out and educate,” Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna Romney McDaniel said Thursday, using Ocasio-Cortez's initials.

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“Every time she opens her mouth, I think she’s kidding, but she’s serious,” Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. added on Friday.

The freshman congresswoman, who has been a progressive superstar since defeating long-term Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.) in a Democratic primary last year, has garnered mega-media attention since entering office in January and loomed over this week's conference.

She appeared to replace prominent Democratic figures such as Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats battle for Hollywood's cash The House Judiciary Committee's fundamental choice Sanders, Omar to hit campaign trail in New Hampshire MORE and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump Democrats open door to repealing ObamaCare tax in spending talks Sunday talk shows: Lawmakers gear up ahead of Monday's House Judiciary hearing MORE (D-Calif.) as CPAC's annual boogeyman. Speakers mentioned Ocasio-Cortez or her policy proposals at least a dozen times over two days of the conference, compared to a small handful of references to Clinton and Pelosi. The New York lawmaker was also featured on signs and posters by critics at the conservative conference.

Ocasio-Cortez’s office did not respond to a request for comment from The Hill for this story.

The Bronx native became a political sensation following her upstart campaign last year to defeat Crowley, a 10-term incumbent who many considered to be a future potential House Speaker. Ocasio-Cortez hit the ground running after her inauguration, making waves by floating a 70 percent marginal tax rate on income above $10 million, supporting "Medicare for all" and proposing the "Green New Deal," which seeks to tackle climate change by investing in eco-friendly jobs.

However, the policies swiftly drew the ire of conservatives who said she would only succeed in further bloating government spending. Some of the policies also rankled more moderate Democrats and established party figures, who cast some of the measures as unrealistic — a theme speakers at CPAC sought to underscore this week.

“Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has introduced the Green New Deal, which is … a watermelon. Green on the outside, deep, deep red communist on the inside,” former White House aide Sebastian GorkaSebastian Lukacs GorkaNikki Haley responds to Gorka: 'I did' tell Trump of concerns about Kelly and Tillerson Jeff Sessions calling Alabama lawmakers about 2020 Senate bid Trump attacks Sessions: A 'total disaster' and 'an embarrassment to the great state of Alabama' MORE said Thursday.

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“What 'Medicare for all' really means is quality health care for none. The only thing green about the so-called Green New Deal is how much green it’s going to cost taxpayers if these people ever pass it into law,” Pence added Friday.

While Ocasio-Cortez has electrified the progressive base — angling her appeal toward young people with a social media strategy that includes messages digesting policy ideas, hitting back at media criticism and showing off dance moves — she had few millennial or Generation Z fans at the conservative conference just outside Washington.

“I think her platform is really scary,” Tyler Toomey, a 21-year-old junior at the State University of New York at Oswego told The Hill. “Her appeal using social media, things like that is really great, and I think more people on the Republican side of the aisle need to figure out how to leverage that … but her policy is just scary.”

“I would like to believe that most members of Congress … are more center and would like to come together in bipartisanship, and it’s elected officials like AOC that try to drive parties, whether it be Republican or Democrat, to the far extremes,” added Rafaello Carone, an 18-year-old high school senior.

And while those at the conference were keen to dunk on Ocasio-Cortez's policy ideas both on and off the stage, they were also eager to link her to the increasingly crowded field of Democrats who are seeking their party's presidential nomination in 2020.

“I take people like AOC seriously because she is the thought leader of the Democratic Party right now,” Fox News host Laura Ingraham said. “She says something and pretty much every presidential candidate or hopeful jumps or are forced to respond.”

“I like her energy and I like how it causes excitement, but it’s dangerous to the Democrats because, if you notice, almost every 2020 candidate is backing her over the leadership of Pelosi,” Alex Lorusso, a 23-year-old student at Assumption College, told The Hill. “So she’s supposed to be the leader of their party and they’re unifying behind a 29-year-old who was formerly a waitress, and they’re trying to take serious policy decisions from her leadership.”

Trump administration officials and other speakers throughout this year's conference repeatedly blasted "socialism" as the GOP seeks to gin up enthusiasm among its base following steep losses in the House in the November midterm elections and a looming battle for the White House next year.

“I want you, everybody in this room and your friends and your neighbors, I want you to put socialism on trial. That’s what I’m asking you to do,” White House adviser Larry Kudlow told the audience on Friday.

“I don’t want us to stand idly by. I don’t want to let this stuff fester, I want it challenged, I want it debated, I want it rebutted, and I want to convict socialism.”

President TrumpDonald John TrumpPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump FBI identifies Pensacola shooter as Saudi Royal Saudi Air Force second lieutenant Trump calls Warren 'Pocahontas,' knocks wealth tax MORE fired the first shot at Democrats during his State of the Union address last month, appearing to single out Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersWarren, Buttigieg fight echoes 2004 campaign, serves as warning for 2020 race Democrats battle for Hollywood's cash Sanders, Omar to hit campaign trail in New Hampshire MORE (I-Vt.), another self-described democratic socialist who is running for president again in 2020.

“Here, in the United States, we are alarmed by new calls to adopt socialism in our country. America was founded on liberty and independence — not government coercion, domination, and control,” Trump exclaimed during his Feb. 5 speech. “We are born free, and we will stay free. Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

However, Ocasio-Cortez, who does not shy away from the democratic socialist label or the ensuing invectives, appeared confident that the president’s attacks are purely defensive.

“I think he’s scared,” she told HuffPost after the address. “He sees that everything is closing in on him. And he knows he’s losing the battle of public opinion when it comes to the actual substantive proposals that we’re advancing to the public.”