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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez greets supporters as she stumps for gubernatorial candidate Abdul El-Sayed in Flint, Michigan, on July 28, 2018.
Kainaz Amaria/Vox

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Why conservatives love to hate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

A democratic socialist most Republicans have never heard has become ubiquitous in conservative media.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become a breakout star in the Democratic Party since June, when she pulled off a stunning upset in the New York midterm primaries, beating Rep. Joe Crowley, a top Democrat in the House.

And, not coincidentally, she has also become the white-hot epicenter of not just derision, but blistering, nonstop criticism from conservatives and Republicans.

Ocasio-Cortez is a part of the new left flank of the Democratic Party that is fighting both Republicans and establishment Democrats (and, occasionally, the media) in advance of the fall midterms.

A Bronx native, she’s a democratic socialist, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) as her political mentor. She’s become a welcome surrogate on the trail for progressive primary candidates; in fact, she’s seemingly everywhere, campaigning for left-leaning Democrats in Kansas, Michigan, and Hawaii.

And to some on the right, like Sean Hannity, Ocasio-Cortez and her politics are “downright scary.”

Former President Barack Obama is retired from politics, for all intents and purposes, and, to paraphrase Richard Nixon, not available for conservatives to “kick around” anymore. And blasting Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, whose name and image Republicans have used to try to terrify voters for more than seven years, just isn’t getting the job done.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is young, new to politics, and far to the left. And to many on the right, she is something else — a target.

Conservative media loves her

Ocasio-Cortez has become ubiquitous in conservative media, a perfect character to represent a changing Democratic Party that is going hard on expanding the social safety net — in the conservative media’s view, too hard.

Though most Republicans have never heard of her, National Review, Breitbart, the American Conservative, and other right-leaning outlets have all written extensively on Ocasio-Cortez. National Review’s Charles C.W. Cooke wrote that he was doing so “because she’s being hyped as the Next Big Thing. Because she’s now within the Vanguard of the Extra Serious Committee for Democratic Socialism in America. Because she’s making videos with Bernie, and being toasted on the Sunday shows.”

Two weeks ago, prominent conservative writer and podcast host Ben Shapiro offered Ocasio-Cortez $10,000 to debate him. “Miss Ocasio-Cortez, I’m really excited that you’ve been elevated to that position and I would love to have a real conversation with you about the issues,” he said, adding, “Not only am I eager to discuss the issues with you, I’m willing to offer $10,000 to your campaign, today, for you to come on our Sunday special,” concluding, “However you want to do it, I am more than willing to talk to you.”

(The Sunday Special is a special feature on The Ben Shapiro Show podcast and video series in which Shapiro interviews figures from politics and culture. For the sake of transparency, Shapiro has also invited me to be on the show.)

Though Shapiro told Fox Business that he didn’t expect a response, Ocasio-Cortez ultimately did. “Just like catcalling, I don’t owe a response to unsolicited requests from men with bad intentions.” I reached out to the Ocasio-Cortez campaign, and was told that the tweet was Ocasio-Cortez’s full statement on the matter.

I reached out to Shapiro, too, and asked why he wanted to debate Ocasio-Cortez (who is running in a deep-blue district in a blue state) and what his response was to her tweet. He said he wanted to have “a discussion or debate — whichever she chose” with Ocasio-Cortez, “Because Tom Perez called her the future of the Democratic Party, and because she hasn’t done a single interview with anyone who didn’t vote Democrat, so far as I am aware.” In response to her tweet, Shapiro said, “Cross-partisan discussions make the country better. End of story. She had every right to say no, of course. But suggesting that this is in any way comparable to catcalling is patently ridiculous and insane.”

Shapiro has gained a massive online following, particularly on Twitter and YouTube, and his appeal with young conservatives has made him, according to the Washington Post, “the person who appeared to be doing the most to shape the thinking of the new generation of Republican leaders.”

And on — of which Shapiro is editor-in-chief — there are six pages of stories on Ocasio-Cortez, with headlines including, “INSANE: Here’s How Much The Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez ‘Medicare For All’ Bill Would Cost” and “Ocasio-Cortez Makes Most Idiotic Statement Ever On Twitter.”

The laser focus on Ocasio-Cortez within conservative and right-wing circles is reminiscent of another Democrat who still looms large in the right: Nancy Pelosi, who to conservatives “epitomizes out-of-touch, liberal elitism” and whose image has been used in GOP campaign ads across the country since the late 2000s.

But Pelosi’s ability to shape the opinions, and votes, of Republicans and independents with her mere presence in ads may have been overstated from the start, and especially in 2018. And with Donald Trump taking up considerable oxygen in the minds of voters, that effect may be even more muted.

As one campaign strategist who spoke anonymously with Politico said in June 2017, “There is zero evidence that linking a candidate to Nancy Pelosi is a meaningful, powerful message that will persuade swing voters or motivate the GOP base.”

That makes Ocasio-Cortez’s entrance into the political scene an important one — for Republicans.

How Republicans are characterizing Ocasio-Cortez

To be clear, Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t become a “boogeyman for conservatives” just because of her ideas and political positions. As a member of the Democratic Socialists of America and someone who ran on Medicare-for-all and a federal jobs guarantee in a deep-blue district, that would have been par for the course.

And Ocasio-Cortez isn’t just a democratic socialist, she’s a democratic socialist who is young, female, and making headlines across the country as she attempts to lead progressive candidates like herself to victory in their primary races.

To many on the left, she’s an invigorating “rock star.” To conservatives looking to paint the new left as terrifying, she’s the perfect example. Plus, if Ocasio-Cortez wins in November, she, like Nancy Pelosi, could hold her seat in Congress for decades.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez greets supporters in Flint, Michigan, on July 28, 2018.
Kainaz Amaria/Vox

So conservatives are framing their criticisms of Ocasio-Cortez and, in Shapiro’s words, the “howling at the moon branch of the Democratic Party,” through not just Ocasio-Cortez’s political platform, but through her gaffes and misstatements. One example: She argued that the cost of government-financed health care would be far outweighed by private health care if you added in “the cost of all the funeral expenses of those who died because they can’t afford access to health care.” Another: She said critics of her confusing answers on the Israel/Palestine issue were largely from the alt-right. (They weren’t.)

Michael Graham wrote for CBS News that “[her] gaffes have become so frequent—and harmful—that a cottage industry has risen up on the Right to trumpet them. She’s become a staple of talk radio and clips of her less-than-flattering moments frequent Fox News. Websites like the Washington Free Beacon and the Daily Caller delight in highlighting the latest misstep from the new poster person for American Progressivism.”

In a Free Beacon article titled “Five Idiotic Moments in the Most Recent Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Interview,” Alex Griswold put it more succinctly: “So yeah, conservatives are looooving this whole Ocasio-Cortez phenomenon.”

Some observers, like FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver, have argued that despite her mistakes, Ocasio-Cortez’s policy knowhow is “about on par with or maybe a bit ahead” of the average member of Congress.

And it’s worth pointing out that misstatements aren’t exactly uncommon in the world of politics, from House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s “valiant but often unsuccessful struggles with the English language” all the way up to the president of the United States.

(Even though Trump frequently commits errors and gaffes and tells outright lies, one Republican Congress member said in July, “I don’t care ... He has a different technique, that’s why I voted for him ... [he] doesn’t want to act like one of those guys who you just played talking here, saying all of those words.”)

But within the conservative imagination, Ocasio-Cortez might not be that much like Nancy Pelosi, who does hold real political power and influence and has for decades, or even Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). Ocasio-Cortez is maybe more like the left-wing version of Tea Party candidates who flamed out hard in the 2010 midterms, a Todd Akin or a Christine O’Donnell.

More specifically, O’Donnell — the Tea Party candidate who stunned the country when she won the 2010 Delaware GOP primary — became national news not for winning her primary, but for gaffes widely (and gleefully) shared in mainstream media outlets, from a complete lack of knowledge regarding Supreme Court cases and the Constitution to her mistaken belief that scientists had created mice with human brains.

Within weeks of winning her primary, O’Donnell went from a shock victory to being parodied on Saturday Night Live — a fate many conservatives would love to see befall Ocasio-Cortez.

Christine O’Donnell’s book, Troublemaker, at a book signing after speaking at a Broward Republican Party fundraiser in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on August 25, 2011.
Carey Wagner/Sun Sentinel/MCT via Getty Images

But there’s something important to remember about Christine O’Donnell. Though she ultimately lost in the general election, her candidacy was a part of a larger wave election that put Republicans with policy positions like hers in the majority in the House and gave the GOP considerable power in states nationwide.

O’Donnell was a Tea Party candidate whose political generation included such figures as Mick Mulvaney (now Trump’s budget director), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID), and Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI) — all of whom didn’t just win their races in 2010, but reshaped their political party as a whole.

In short, though O’Donnell lost, her ideas and political perspective won. And the conservative concern about Ocasio-Cortez, and, more broadly, “an insurgent-led shift towards a more Sanders-esque Democratic party,” is still very much a possibility.

For her part, Ocasio-Cortez’s team has made it clear that she will not be slowing down her media appearances, arguing that the added attention will put the spotlight on her policy platform, which includes eliminating ICE and a federal jobs-for-all guarantee.

But conservatives will continue to hammer her, believing that by doing so, they can sink the most visible representative of the “new” Democratic Party.

Ocasio-Cortez speaks about income inequality, low minimum wage, and Medicare-for-all in Flint, Michigan, on July 28, 2018.
Kainaz Amaria/Vox

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