Tale of Two Freshmen

Abigail Spanberger and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

They both came to Congress with the “Blue Wave” election of 2018. One, Abigail Spanberger (VA-7), flipping a seat from an apparent rising star in the Republican Party, Dave Brat. The other, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (NY-14), beating a long-time incumbent, Joe Crowley, in the primary for his seat in a New York City district where virtually no Republican opposition exists. They both won re-election in 2020. Spanberger fought a close contest reflecting her rural-exurban-suburban district in central Virginia, Ocasio-Cortez faced only token opposition in the primary and general election.

Other House Democrats swept into Congress in that heady 2018 landslide did not fare so well. Democrats suffered a net loss of eleven seats in the 117th Congress, maintaining the majority by a slim nine seats.

Yet the conventional wisdom maintained, and all the pollsters were convinced, that the Democratic majority would likely be augmented in 2020. Joe Biden coasted to victory over Donald Trump, but one can only presume that there was much ticket-splitting among voters – both in the Senate, where polls similarly projected Democratic gains that didn’t materialize, and in the House, where some, like Spanberger, vocally declared a “disaster” for her Party.

During a caucus call with fellow House Democrats on November 5, immediately after the election, Spanberger declared: “If we are classifying Tuesday as a success from a congressional standpoint, we will get f—ing torn apart in 2022,” granting her the greatest media exposure of her career when it was reported by CNN. And she had won a remarkable victory two years earlier. She said in that call, “The number one concern in things that people brought to me in my [district] that I barely re-won, was defunding the police. And I’ve heard from colleagues who have said ‘Oh, it’s the language of the streets. We should respect that.’ We’re in Congress. We are professionals. We are supposed to talk about things in the way where we mean what we’re talking about. If we don’t mean we should defund the police, we shouldn’t say that.” Also, in pointed reference to two of her colleagues in that 2018 freshman class who identify as members of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), “We want to talk about funding social services, and ensuring good engagement in community policing, let’s talk about what we are for. And we need to not ever use the words ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. Because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter. And we lost good members because of it.”

Abigail Spanberger, a former CIA case officer, from Henrico County, Virginia had instantly become a media celebrity in American politics by directly challenging the best-known political star from the 2018 election, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (“AOC”). For her part, AOC had to respond, despite Spanberger not mentioning her name in that diatribe. Ocasio-Cortez had her own pointed words, in a New York Times interview, about those Democratic House incumbents who lost their re-election bid: “These folks are pointing toward Republican messaging that they feel killed them, right? But why were you so vulnerable to that attack?”

“If you’re not door-knocking, if you’re not on the internet, if your main points of reliance are TV and mail, then you’re not running a campaign on all cylinders. I just don’t see how anyone could be making ideological claims when they didn’t run a full-fledged campaign.

“Our party isn’t even online, not in a real way that exhibits competence. And so, yeah, they were vulnerable to these messages, because they weren’t even on the mediums where these messages were most potent. Sure, you can point to the message, but they were also sitting ducks. They were sitting ducks.”

She was blaming the Members who lost for running ineffective campaigns, not taking full advantage of social media, or whatever. It was NOT their policy positions that led to their defeat. It was their vulnerability to Republican talking points – they didn’t know how to fight back! AOC claims she DOES.

Herein lies a conflict between Abigail Spanberger’s world view (or her constituents’) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ world view. Of course, the voters in Spanberger’s district should not be assumed to be the same as voters in Ocasio-Cortez’ district. One represents a largely rural or exurban, white, constituency. The other represents an urban constituency, largely non-white, often poor, but in the heart of the largest city in America. Why would anybody expect these two groups to have similar voting preferences?

What of the future for the Democratic Party? In 2022 and beyond, a Congressional majority will depend upon finding common ground among many different constituencies. Spanberger is correct when she says that candidates should not run on labels or slogans, like “socialism” or “defund the police,” but on concrete policies that can arguably benefit their respective voters. Ocasio-Cortez is correct in asserting that a modern Congressional campaign needs to exploit every available means to counter those empty slogans from the opposition.

Both are articulating a desire to be servants of their communities. Spanberger and Ocasio-Cortez appear equally committed to the interests of the people who voted for them. And, by extension, to convincing their electorates that they are serious about delivering on them. Their records in the 116th and, so far, in the 117th Congress support this contention. Both have sponsored bills that go beyond naming of post offices! Their voting records are nearly indistinguishable.

In the end, no political campaign will ever eradicate the chicanery and doubletalk that we have come to associate with the genre, and the deciding factor in most will be the bond of trust, or potential for improvement, that any candidate establishes with their voters. We tend to vote, with jaundiced eye, for the candidate who displays less of the negative characteristics – and, sometimes, we get a chance to put a fresh new face in the halls of Congress, if we want!

— William Sundwick

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