In new video, Ocasio-Cortez joins progressive effort to oust more incumbent Democrats

The New York lawmaker is likely to cause a stir in the party by lending her star power to a Justice Democrats' program to boost insurgents.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., participates in a video to help recruit new candidates for Justice Democrats. The activist group plans to back primary challenges to centrist Democrats.Justice Democrats
By Benjy Sarlin

WASHINGTON — Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez toppled a well-established Democratic leader in a stunning primary upset last year — now she's looking to spur others to do the same.

In a promotional video for Justice Democrats, the grassroots group that backed Ocasio-Cortez's 2018 upstart run against Joe Crowley, a 10-term incumbent, as well as Rep. Ayanna Pressley's successful challenge to Mike Capuano in Massachusetts, Ocasio-Cortez shares lessons from her campaign to help boost a new recruitment drive for progressive insurgents called #OurTime.

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Under the program, activists can nominate potential candidates for the group's backing. In the video, Ocasio-Cortez recounts how she was nominated by her brother and became interested in running while participating in environmental protests with Native Americans activists at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

"Everybody knows someone in their life that is already an amazing public servant," Ocasio-Cortez says in the video, which also features her chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, and spokesman, Corbin Trent. "Nominate that amazing public servant to take their service to the halls of Congress. Give them that nudge."

Ocasio-Cortez's participation in the Justice Democrats' program could be a source of tension on the Hill, where members backing primaries against their colleagues is rare. Already she's challenged expectations for freshmen by participating in climate protests in Speaker Nancy Pelosi's office and pushing leadership to establish a select committee to craft a "Green New Deal" that would rapidly slash carbon emissions.

"There's a lot of people in the Democratic caucus. When we are courageous enough to just puncture the silence on an issue, they will start to move," Ocasio-Cortez says in the video.

Already, the group is publicly searching for a primary challenger to centrist Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas. Cuellar has defended his record, arguing his district features "more moderate, conservative Democrats."

Ocasio-Cortez has not explicitly backed the effort to oust Cuellar, but the group's leaders say #OurTime is focused on replicating the formula that elected her. That means targeting longtime incumbents in safe blue seats who are "demographically and ideologically out-of-touch with their districts," as a press release puts it.

In the new video, Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas says "running in competitive primary elections in Democratic-held seats is important" while Trent, the Ocasio-Cortez spokesman, warns that a 97 percent re-election rate for incumbents leads to "electoral atrophy" without primaries.

"The reason we want to keep doing Democrat vs. Democrat primaries is because it's a way to move the Democratic Party in a more progressive direction and make Democrats more accountable to their base and not just corporate donors," Waleed Shahid, spokesman for Justice Democrats, told NBC News.

Benjy Sarlin

Benjy Sarlin is a political reporter for NBC News.