A historic number of women candidates are stepping forward in this year’s election cycle, amplifying their voices, actively engaging with their communities and—collectively—reshaping popular conceptions about influence and representation in American politics. The numbers are astounding. 476 female House candidates filed to run this year. More than half of women running in House primaries won their races, comprising the largest number of House primary victories by women ever. And it’s not just women who are winning. People of color and LGBTQ+ candidates have won primaries in unprecedented numbers. In fact, among Democratic House nominees, white men are the minority.
One of the most surprising victories in the midterm primary elections occurred in the 14th Congressional District of New York, where 28-year old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated a powerful 10-term incumbent. Ocasio-Cortez, the daughter of a Puerto Rican mother, was born and raised in the South Bronx. As recently as February, she was working as a bartender and waiting tables. Today, she’s on her way to becoming the youngest woman ever elected to Congress.
In her viral campaign video, Ocasio-Cortez remarked, “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office. I wasn’t born into a wealthy or powerful family…I was born in a place where your zip code determines your destiny.” It’s a story that has resonated with voters: not only did Ocasio-Cortez run and win the primary in the 14th district by a 15-point margin, but she also won a primary in the neighboring 15th Congressional District as a write-in candidate.
Ocasio-Cortez’s victory was made possible by her grassroots campaign, which raised more small-dollar donations in these primaries than any other New York City politician. “I started this race out of a paper bag. I had flyers and clipboards and it really was just nonstop knocking on doors and talking to the community,” she said. As a first-time candidate, Ocasio-Cortez turned in nearly four times the number of required petition signatures to get on the primary ballot. Her approach to campaigning—door-to-door outreach, maintaining an active social media presence, distributing bilingual campaign flyers—spoke to an electorate that could relate, not only to her background, but to her message. Her campaign was especially appealing to minorities and youth, two categories of voters that have historically been less likely to vote.
As a young woman of color, Ocasio-Cortez represents in many ways the willpower and resilience required to dismantle barriers in the political campaign process. From critics questioning her working-class roots to individuals claiming that her bold red lipstick might be too daring for a female politician, Ocasio-Cortez has made it clear that she will fight every stereotype head-on.
Thamanna Hussain is a third year law student at New York Law School. She was a summer associate at Debevoise in 2018.
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Photo credit: Jesse Korman