Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Myth of the Morena Tide

July 25, 2018

Days after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s historic defeat over longtime incumbent Joseph Crowley in the New York Democratic House primary on June 26th, the Latina Democrat tweeted:

Ocasio-Cortez was right on multiple fronts. While her congressional district is strongly Democratic and is decidedly more diverse than most (50% of the district is Latina/o and 11% is African American/Black), this has not translated into victories for other non-white candidates. Much like other majority-minority districts, New York’s 14th Congressional District has been represented exclusively by white men and women, most recently Joseph Crowley – who ran unopposed in the Democratic primary since 2004. In other words, the longstanding mantra of racial politics holds true here: “demography is not destiny.” Moreover, winning requires a substantial investment of time, money, and energy, as well as a commitment to engaging all voters on issues they care about and a strategy for reaching those voters long before election day.

Ocasio-Cortez won because she “out-worked her competition,” meaning she invested in education and incorporation of the often-targeted high-propensity voters, while also putting in the work to reach low-propensity, unregistered, and first-time voters – a population that is over-represented by women, people of color and young voters. She also advanced a message that more closely resembled the views of a majority of the voters in her district; namely “support for a federal job guarantee, Medicare-for-All and abolishing ICE.”  Finally, she engaged in registering voters (a key concern given the increasing difficulty of registering non-white and young voters), and most notably she engaged those voters directly in one-on-one house visits – a well-heeled but difficult strategy that works. In other words, she won because she demonstrated she was the better candidate for the job and in doing so elevated the hopes of Latinas and other underrepresented women of color candidates from California to Massachusetts.

However, while Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is an important milestone for Latinas, it is not indicative of a “pink tide” or “morena tide” of Latina candidates and voters sweeping across the primary season. Her win is so historic precisely because it is uncommon to Latina experiences as candidates and voters, even in an election cycle where Latina/o communities are directly targeted in pejorative campaigns from the Senate to school boards. Despite strong opposition to Trump’s presidency and an energized Democratic base particularly opposed to his immigration policies and practices, Latina candidates are still largely underrepresented as candidates and occupants of federal and statewide office in 2018. And their electoral success is far from guaranteed, especially among those Latinas without previous political experience.

Among those states where U.S. House primaries have already occurred, 57% of Latina candidates have lost or withdrawn from the race. Over 60% of Latina primary winners are either incumbents, current public officials, or have previous experience as political professionals that make them high-quality candidates with an increased likelihood of success. By contrast, approximately 77% of Latinas who lost their primaries had no prior office-holding experience. While these women embodied a vast array of careers and professional accomplishments –  including actress, attorney, cosmetologist, real estate agent, and pageant winter, they frequently lacked the political knowledge and experience to cultivate a competitive campaign. In this way, Ocasio-Cortez’s win in New York and the success of a handful of other Latinas with minimal  political experience (such as Democratic Xochitl Torres Small in New Mexico’s 2nd congressional district) are exceptional instead of exemplary of Latina candidates’ experiences this year.

Including candidates already defeated in primary contests, 51 Latinas are major party candidates for the U.S. House in 2018, and there is only 1 Latina candidate for the U.S. Senate. In addition, eleven Latinas are candidates in statewide contests for governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state or attorney general across all 50 states.

Among the 51 Latina House candidates, 42 are running in just five states: Arizona (5), California (11), Florida (7), New York (4), and Texas (15).  While this reflects an overall increase in the number of Latinas running for national office over previous midterm elections, this does not necessarily portend an increase in Latina congresswomen. Several of these are candidates running against other Latinas, against other women (including other women of color), or against other Latino candidates.

For example, two Latinas (Republican Lea Marquez Peterson and Democrat Mary Sally Matiella) have emerged in a crowded and highly competitive race to fill Representative Martha McSally’s seat in Arizona’s 2nd congressional district (McSally is running for the U.S. Senate). In Illinois’s CD 44th congressional district, Latina community organizer Sol Flores lost her primary bid to replace retiring Latino Democrat Luis Gutierrez in a race against two fellow Latinos – Jesus Garcia and Richard Gonzalez. In Florida, five Latinas have emerged as candidates in the 27th congressional district, the seat held by long-term incumbent Republican Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who was also the first Latina elected to the U.S. Congress. All five of the Latinas in the race are Republicans (Angie Chirino, Bettina Rodriguez-Aguilera, Gina Sosa-Suarez, Maria Peiro, Maria Elvira-Salazar). And in Texas, three Latinas challenged each other in the 16th and 23rd congressional districts, while four Latinas ran against each other in the 29th congressional district; a Latina won the Democratic nomination in each of these three districts, but seven Latinas lost across them. Texas is also the only state where a Latina has entered the race for U.S. Senate; however, Irasema Hernandez lost the Democratic primary to Representative Beto O’Rourke who is currently challenging incumbent Republican Senator (and fellow Latino) Ted Cruz.

Despite being part of the largest racial/ethnic minority population nationally and one of the fastest growing and youngest demographic groups, Latinas continue to be significantly underrepresented in national political races. In 2018, Latinas represent less than 2% of congressional candidates in 2018. They are candidates in 37 of 435 congressional districts and only 1 U.S. Senate race (out of 35 Senate contests this year).

This underrepresentation is particularly acute in areas of the Southwest and Northeast with concentrated populations of Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Central Americans who represent critical voting blocs. For example, states such as Colorado and New Jersey where approximately 20% of the state’s populations are Latina/o,  and where there is a substantial and growing population of Latina/o voters have yielded no Latina candidates for national or statewide office this election cycle. This is particularly remarkable in Colorado and New Jersey as these are states with a well-established history of Latina/o candidates winning local, statewide, and national campaigns – such as current U.S. Senator Bob Menendez in New Jersey and former U.S. Senator and Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar in Colorado. From January 2017 to March 2018, Latinas led Democratic legislators in Colorado’s House and Senate with Crisanta Duran as the Colorado House Speaker and Lucia Guzman as the Minority Leader in the State Senate.

The best outcome for Latinas this primary season has been in California and Texas which have generated the highest yield of Latina candidates for national office. However, even in these states where more than 40% of the state is Latina/o, Latinas are just 6% of general election House candidates in California and 7% Texas’ major party House nominees.

As Christina Bejarano has noted, with 124 Latinas currently in office in state legislatures Latina political power tends to be concentrated in state and local office. However, the limited number of Latinas (and particularly experienced Latinas) competing in national and statewide races is worrisome as these are sites of government and policymaking where dramatic policy shifts that directly impact Latina/o communities are being made daily – especially those surrounding immigration and enforcement. The absence of Latinas as candidates and officeholders means some of the most harmful policies and vitriolic narratives aimed at Latinas/os that are deeply raced, gendered and legitimize a practice of gendered violence can go unchallenged.

An Alternative Tide? Keys to Mobilizing Latina/o Voters in 2018

Ultimately, there is a gap between enthusiasm over the potential for historic victories of female, brown, black, and progressive candidates this cycle and their actual success in the primary season. While this year may not be a watershed moment for Latina candidates, the potential still exists to mobilize Latina/o voters in key races and, in doing so, upset incumbents, rival powerful challengers, and even change the balance of power in the House and Senate. Taking a lesson from both Ocasio-Cortez’s upset and from research by Lisa Garcia Bedolla on and Melissa Michelson on mobilizing Latina/o voters, there are a number of valuable lessons for making Latina/o voters count this midterm.

Ocasio-Cortez’s success came not simply in perfecting the mechanics of voter engagement; it came also in delivering a message that was aligned with the majority of voters in her district and one that challenged the hostile anti-immigrant and explicitly anti-Latina/o narrative expressed by the White House and echoed by many Republican incumbents. Namely, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign highlighted the value and significance of Latina/o political engagement, the long trajectory of immigration that bolstered (not threatened) the entire country and the district specifically, and how a mobilized electorate could not just change the fate of the primary but also the composition of Congress. In other words, the brilliance of Ocasio-Cortez was her ability to effectively engage with voters, especially Latina/o voters, in her district. She coupled a mobilizing narrative of value (not merely anger or threat) with a comprehensive strategy of in-person conversations led by staff whose experience and demographic profile mirrored the targeted voters.

In an election season marked by racialized and gendered targeting of vulnerable Latina/o populations there is a growing need for Latina candidates such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Unfortunately, the underrepresentation of Latinas in national and statewide contests means that a morena tide of Latina political officeholders won’t materialize this election cycle; this year’s Latina tide may instead come at the ballot box.

Dr. Anna Sampaio is Director and Associate Professor of Ethnic Studies and Political Science at Santa Clara University. She is the author of Terrorizing Latina/o Immigrants: Race, Gender, and Immigration Politics in the Age of Security (Temple University Press, 2015).