Some Senate Dems see Ocasio-Cortez as weak spokeswoman for party

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is taking Washington by storm, but some Senate Democrats see her exploding appeal as more of a sideshow than meaningful statement about the future of their party.

Centrist Democrats worry that Ocasio-Cortez’s advocacy for adopting a 70-percent tax rate for the nation’s highest income earners, funding “Medicare for all” and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement doesn’t play well in their home states. 

{mosads}In 2020, Democrats need to pick up at least three seats to capture the Senate majority, which means winning in centrist or Republican-leaning states such as Alabama, Colorado, New Hampshire, Iowa and North Carolina. They would prefer to focus instead on bipartisan ideas to lower health care costs, rein in the federal deficit and help veterans — priorities that drive votes in battleground states but don’t usually draw much national media attention.

“The Democratic Party represents lots of views and her views don’t represent a lot of my constituents — they do some but not all,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), who faces a competitive reelection in 2020.

Ocasio-Cortez drew a storm of media attention earlier this month when she told Anderson Cooper in a “60 Minutes” interview that her ambitious plan for a “Green New Deal” — a huge federal investment in clean-energy jobs — could be paid for by taxing people who earn $10 million a year at 60 percent or  70 percent, a level not seen since the early 1980s.

Calls to jack up tax rates and spend trillions on government-provided health  care conjures up the days when New Hampshire was a Republican stronghold in New England and when bashing Democrats as “tax-and-spend liberals” was a favorite tactic in the GOP playbook.

The New York Times declared in a headline Sunday that “Ocasio-Cortez pushes Democrats to the left, whether they like it or not.”

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), the Senate’s most vulnerable incumbent, isn’t happy that Ocasio-Cortez is becoming a symbol of what the Democratic Party is about.

“I think it skews what’s really there for the Democratic Party,” he said in an interview. 

A spokesman for Ocasio-Cortez did not respond to a request for comment.

The criticism from Senate Democrats of the outspoken 29-year-old House progressive comes months after House Democrats also questioned her staying power. Last summer, frustrated House Democrats publicly advised Ocasio-Cortez to work with Democratic incumbents after she defeated then-Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) in a primary.

At the time, Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.) said, “Meteors fizz out. What she will learn in this institution is that it’s glacial to begin with, and therefore no matter how far you rise, that’s just how far you will ultimately get your comeuppance.”

However, Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t fizzled out, amassing nearly 2.4 million Twitter followers and praise from others in the party, including Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), who is considering a run for president in 2020.

{mosads}Jones said that while outspoken House liberals will get a lot of media attention this year, it’s centrists such as himself who will be the key to passing legislation in the 116th Congress.

“When it gets time to get things done, that’s what people are going to be looking at — they’re going to be looking at the middle-of-the-roaders because it’s the only way to get anything done,” he said.

Jones warned that if the new Democratic House majority lurches as far to the left as the Republican-controlled House did in recent years, it’s going to be difficult to compile a record of legislative accomplishment. 

“If the House did all the crazy things on the left that the House did on the right for the last two years, that’s not going to happen,” he said of the prospect of getting reforms enacted into law.

Jones added he’s focused on a much less ambitious agenda than a near doubling of the top income tax rate or a second coming of FDR’s historic New Deal.

“I’m going to continue to focus on HBCUs, health care, rural health care and the tariff is still going to be a big issue for us,” he said, referring to historically black colleges and universities.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who recently won reelection in a state that President Trump won by 42 points, echoed Jones’s argument that, while outspoken liberals might be getting most of the attention right now, getting bills passed into law will require moving to the center.

“They’ll all find out, if you want to get something done, you got to work together. If they want someone to get something to done, I’ll be happy to do it,” he said. 

Unlike Manchin and other Democratic centrists, Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t hesitated to throw punches at the president.

The fiery freshman mocked Trump on Monday, claiming he’s exaggerated his wealth.

“I’d say we’d be taxing 70% of Trump’s income, but he probably hasn’t made more than $10 million in years – and that’s the real reason he’s hiding his taxes,” she tweeted with a winking smiley face emoji.

But centrists warn that attacking Trump isn’t likely to be a recipe for victory in 2020.

“I worry that the Democrats are majoring in Trump bashing. And we’ll have to do more than that in order to win the confidence of enough Americans to regain the Senate and importantly the presidency,” said former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who lost her race in November.

Former Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), a centrist who represented a Republican-leaning state for the past six years until losing his reelection bid in November, said that while Ocasio-Cortez is getting more attention than any other House freshman, it was lower-profile centrists such as Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) who won back control of the lower chamber.

“There’s perception and there’s reality.  The reality is so much of the hard work was done by people like Abby Spanberger in Virginia, who did a wonderful job in her campaign,” he said in an interview during one of his final days in office.  “That’s how we bring America together.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in the November general election kept Democrats in control of an already heavily Democratic district and did not add to the party’s majority in Congress.

In the more moderate 7th District of Virginia, Spanberger has called for working within the framework of the Affordable Care Act to lower costs and expand coverage. She wants to reinstate the individual mandate, which Republicans repealed in the 2017 tax reform law, and align the enrollment deadline to Tax Day.

But in a nod to the influence that liberals such as Ocasio-Cortez are having on the debate, Spanberger wants to pursue universal coverage through a public option.

For this reason, more liberal senators such as Chris Murphy (D) of Connecticut applaud the impact that Ocasio-Cortez has had on the policy debate during the first few days of the Democratic Congress.

He and other Democratic senators from more reliably blue states say that while Ocasio-Cortez may not get her most ambitious ideas passed into law, she is shifting the debate further to the left.

Murphy, a rising star in his own right, says he supporters a single-payer health care program but thinks the best way to achieve it is by passing a bridge program that smooths the transition from a system largely based on employer-provided private insurance. 

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), who narrowly survived reelection last year in another state that voted strongly for Trump, predicted that Ocasio-Cortez will soon fade from the spotlight.

“I hope she has a great, successful career,” he said but added, “I was here when they elected the guy from Massachusetts and he was a flavor of the month,” referring to former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown, a Republican who shocked the political establishment in 2010 when he won the seat long held by liberal legend Ted Kennedy.

“I was a flavor of the month for a while,” Tester said of his own election in a GOP-leaning state in 2006, predicting that the buzz over Ocasio-Cortez will die down sooner or later.

“Flavors of the month come and go. She’s a flavor of the month right now. My guess is she’ll come, she’ll go. It’s the way the system works,” he said. 

This article was updated on Jan. 16 at 3:54 p.m.

Tags Abigail Spanberger Alcee Hastings Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Chris Murphy Claire McCaskill Donald Trump Jeanne Shaheen Joe Donnelly Joe Manchin Jon Tester

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