The sacking of Rep. Joe Crowley two years ago and the prospect of giving Rep. Eliot L. Engel the boot Tuesday in the New York Democratic primary has far-left activists dreaming big about the future.
So big, in fact, that liberals are kicking around the idea that Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could launch a 2022 primary challenge against a titan of the Democratic Party establishment: Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.
“Just going to say something out loud that should be obvious: The fastest way to speed up the process of changing the corrupt, do-nothing, status-quo-protecting culture of the national Democratic Party is for @AOC to defeat @ChuckSchumer in a Democratic primary in 2022,” David Sirota, a senior adviser to Sen. Bernard Sanders’ presidential campaign, recently said in a post on Twitter.
Grassroots activists are looking for a successor to take up the mantle of far-left politics that Mr. Sanders, 78, carried in his two bids for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Ms. Ocascio-Cortez would be a natural fit, so the mere thought of the liberal sensation considering a heavyweight clash with Mr. Schumer is generating buzz about the future of the first-term congresswoman while adding another layer of intrigue to the New York’s primary.
The specter of an Ocasio-Cortez challenge may explain why Mr. Schumer, 69, seemed reluctant to pick sides in the intraparty battle in the 16th Congressional District between Mr. Engel, a 16-term incumbent, and Jamaal Bowman, a 44-year-old middle school principal.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez put her stamp on the race this month when she backed Mr. Bowman, cementing his status as the liberal standard-bearer.
Mr. Bowman later secured endorsements from Mr. Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Mr. Schumer last week threw his support behind Mr. Engel, putting him on the same side of the fight as 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
“I think Schumer certainly is watching these races very carefully, and I think it does say a lot about where the Democratic Party is headed,” said Jeanne Zaino, a political science professor at Iona College. “One thing I think we can say is the Democrats in New York have a pretty strong bench, and the bench is young and diverse and increasingly liberal, and the establishment folks — Schumer and Cuomo — have felt some of the quakes from that part of the party.”
Ms. Zaino said Mr. Schumer recognizes that the energy on the left is more than “just a fluke with Ocasio-Cortez.”
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has refused to rule out the idea of taking on one of the party’s most powerful establishment figures.
Mr. Schumer, meanwhile, said he plans to stay focused on his job.
“I have found throughout my career you do your job well, everything else works out OK,” Mr. Schumer said during a recent interview on CNN.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez would face a major battle because Mr. Schumer is a different political animal than Mr. Crowley and Mr. Engel. He has maintained strong ties to communities across his home state, and New Yorkers gravitate toward his larger-than-life character.
“The first problem is Chuck Schumer is the hardest-working guy in show business,” said Evan Stavisky, a Democratic consultant with the Parkside Group. “He is the first candidate in office to visit the state’s 62 counties annually, and he has done that for 20 years.”
“He is an Energizer Bunny,” he said.
Also, the political left in New York has struggled to translate its local victories statewide.
Mrs. Clinton steamrollered Mr. Sanders there in the 2016 presidential primary, and Mr. Cuomo won a third term in 2018 after easily beating back a challenge from Cynthia Nixon, a former “Sex and the City” star and left-wing cause celebre.
“It is a blue state that has only gotten bluer, and there are some natural conversations that are happening about what is the balance between progressive ideals and the reality of governing, and voters have generally on a statewide level supported candidates like Andrew Cuomo and Hillary Clinton,” Mr. Stavisky said.
Mr. Schumer’s image has taken a hit among Republicans and independents since he became minority leader in the Senate, but he remains popular among Democrats, said Steven Greenberg, a pollster for Siena College.
Mr. Greenberg’s surveys have found that Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is not as well-known or well-liked as Mr. Schumer among Republicans and independents, but she has strong support among Democrats.
“Where we will be two years from now? Not even my magic eight ball knows the answer to that one,” Mr. Greenberg said of the potential primary matchup.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez shocked the party establishment after she defeated Mr. Crowley by a whopping 15 points in the 14th Congressional District, which is home to increasingly diverse communities in the Bronx and Queens.
To the delight of some and disgust of others, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez is no wallflower within the halls of Congress.
She has pushed Democratic leaders, inspired grassroots activists and drawn fire from Republicans with her calls for Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and the abolition of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez co-founded the “Squad” with three other unapologetically liberal congresswomen who rose up out of the 2018 elections from minority communities and have demanded systematic change.
Serving as a surrogate to Mr. Sanders, the 30-year-old flashed her budding star power on the national stage in the presidential primary race by attracting massive crowds to campaign events.
Before anything happens, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez must defend her seat Tuesday against three challengers, including Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a former business journalist and CNBC host.
In her closing campaign ad, Ms. Ocascio-Cortez is telling voters that the fallout from COVID-19, mass unemployment and racism in law enforcement have exposed a broken system of governance.
“What if these broken systems weren’t built to last in the first place? What if a better world is possible?” she says in a campaign ad. “People are coming together in an unprecedented movement to build this better future and a better world.
“It is time to bring the movement to the voting booth,” she says.