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Ocasio-Cortez builds political army, and a fundraising machine to match

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezThe Memo: Outrage rises among liberals over Israel Battle lines drawn over Biden's support for vaccine waivers Overnight Energy: Update on Biden administration conservation goals | GOP sees opportunity to knock Biden amid rising gas prices | Push for nationwide electric vehicle charging stations MORE (D-N.Y.) has spent more money than any House Democrat seeking reelection this year, building a massive political team and an even bigger money machine.

An analysis of the freshman firebrand's prodigious spending shows Ocasio-Cortez has nearly 40 staffers on her campaign, with 30 having been hired in 2020 — a staff size more typical of a top-tier Senate campaign than a congresswoman seeking reelection in a safely progressive seat.

Ocasio-Cortez had spent $6.3 million through June 3, according to her latest FEC report, sixth overall among House candidates.

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Just two years after she pulled off a stunning upset over a veteran lawmaker, Ocasio-Cortez has become a magnet for small-dollar donors. She has raised more than $10.5 million, about 80 percent of which came from donors giving under $200, the FEC reports show.

That mammoth haul makes her the fifth-most prodigious fundraiser of the cycle so far, behind only House GOP whip Steve ScaliseStephen (Steve) Joseph ScaliseTop female GOP senator compares Cheney ousting to 'cancel culture' McCarthy schedules vote to oust Cheney for Wednesday Trump amplifies attacks on Cheney ahead of key vote MORE (R-La.), House Republican leader Kevin McCarthyKevin McCarthyTop female GOP senator compares Cheney ousting to 'cancel culture' Kinzinger plotted to oust McCarthy after Jan. 6 attack Romney: Removing Cheney from House leadership will cost GOP election votes MORE (R-Calif.), Rep. Devin NunesDevin Gerald NunesMcCarthy unveils House GOP task forces, chairs Former GOP operative installed as NSA top lawyer resigns Sunday shows preview: Russia, US exchange sanctions; tensions over policing rise; vaccination campaign continues MORE (R-Calif.) and Rep. Adam SchiffAdam Bennett SchiffFree Speech Inc.: The Democratic Party finds a new but shaky faith in corporate free speech Trump backs Stefanik to replace Cheney Gender politics hound GOP in Cheney drama MORE (D-Calif.)

Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiThe Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden reverses Trump limits on transgender protections The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Infrastructure, Cheney ouster on deck as Congress returns This week: Congressional leaders to meet with Biden amid GOP reckoning MORE (D-Calif.), a legendary fundraiser, has brought in $8.3 million to her personal reelection campaign, though she has also raised for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). 

Her spending hints that Ocasio-Cortez is working to build an even more robust fundraising operation. She has spent almost $1.2 million on Facebook ads that target viewers around the country, ads likely meant to recruit more donors. And she has spent half a million dollars renting email lists and advertising at a Washington-based consulting firm.

Paul Herrnson, a political science professor at the University of Connecticut who studies campaign finance and congressional elections, said $6 million is “quite a bit for a person in a safe district to spend.”

Ocasio-Cortez's most significant political challenge this year comes next week, when she faces former Republican and news anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera in the Democratic primary. FEC records show she has spent nearly $60,000 this year on polling at Lake Research Partners, a prominent Democratic survey research firm, to keep an eye on her own numbers.

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Caruso-Cabrera, who is backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has raised more than $2 million through donations from dozens of chief executives and bankers.

Rumors occasionally float through New York political circles that Ocasio-Cortez is interested in challenging Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) in 2022. But Lauren Hitt, her campaign spokeswoman, said the campaign has only polled and run get-out-the-vote advertising inside her own district.

The high levels of spending, Hitt said, are because Ocasio-Cortez takes her primary challenge seriously.

“Our challenger has spent millions on this primary race and has the support of three super PACs,” Hitt said in an email. “That’s why you’re seeing the spending you’re seeing. We take nothing for granted.”

Ocasio-Cortez has not ruled out challenging Schumer two years from now. “Who knows where any of us are going to be in 2022,” Ocasio-Cortez said in April.

Though Caruso-Cabrera has the backing of many big-name Wall Street donors, Ocasio-Cortez’s pollster, Celinda Lake, told the Los Angeles Times the incumbent stands little chance of losing.

The freshman’s spending, then, is a function of the size of her star and may indicate she has bigger plans, Herrnson said.

“She has quickly emerged as a national leader,” Herrnson said. “Everything about her track record suggests she’s ambitious. Unlike most first-term members of Congress, she has national visibility and a national following. Those things combine to result in her spending more than your typical invisible first-term member in the House.”

No candidate has spent more than Ocasio-Cortez on Facebook, where she has invested $3.2 million since May 2018. And few congressional candidates are likely to have such a large staff, even in the run-up to November's general election.

“Ambitious members of Congress spend a lot on overhead, whether it’s fundraising, consultants or staff,” he said. “So, that’s not out of the norm for someone who fits that profile.”

Ocasio-Cortez has also spent money on fundraising appeals aimed at benefiting those who have suffered during the coronavirus pandemic. Hitt told The New York Times last week that the campaign helped raise more than $1 million for pandemic relief for community groups.

Stan Oklobdzija, a postdoctoral fellow at the Claremont McKenna College Policy Lab who researches campaign finance, said star members of Congress with strong digital advertising presences raise and spend a lot of money, even in safe districts. Rep. Dan CrenshawDaniel CrenshawCrenshaw makes first appearance at hearing since eye surgery Crenshaw 'hopeful' but not 'out of the woods' after eye surgery GOP Rep. Crenshaw to take leave due to eye surgery MORE (R-Texas), a rising conservative star, is also high on the congressional campaign finance charts, having raised $6.6 million this cycle and spent $3.5 million, despite being a freshman in a ruby-red district.

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Oklobdzija also said Ocasio-Cortez’s ambition is not just personal — she is part of a broader progressive movement working to push the Democratic Party to the left. To that end, she has endorsed a broad slate of candidates across New York City.

“As a higher profile member who doesn’t have to worry about her seat or even her primary, Ocasio-Cortez can raise and spend this kind of money in order to help out other progressives,” Oklobdzija said.

In February, Ocasio-Cortez launched Courage to Change, a political action committee that supports candidates who “refuse to bow to establishment pressure.”

She has backed numerous progressive challengers in Democratic primaries against incumbents, including Marie Newman, who beat Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) earlier this year; Jessica Cisneros, who narrowly lost a challenge to Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas); and Jamaal Bowman, who is challenging Rep. Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelLawmakers on hot mic joke 'aisle hog' Engel absent from Biden address: 'He'd wait all day' Bowman to deliver progressive response to Biden's speech to Congress Liberal advocacy group stirs debate, discomfort with primary challenges MORE (D-N.Y.) in next week's primary.

Ocasio-Cortez has run hundreds of national ads on Facebook slamming the DCCC, linking to her ActBlue page and promising to support progressives.

Herrnson said her impressive fundraising could indicate a desire to advance into House leadership, run a statewide race or continue to grow the progressive movement, but regardless, she has national attention and a well-resourced platform from which to wield it.

“She has a national constituency and appears looking to grow it,” Herrnson said. “And that conforms with the notion of someone who has higher political ambitions.”