Two of the best-known women in Democratic politics had just recorded a video to upbraid Treasury Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, when Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez started bantering about the final episode of “Game of Thrones.” Their riff bemoaning the show’s anti-feminist finale was caught on tape, slapped up on Twitter, and in a flash drew almost 2 million viewers.
Most every time Warren and Ocasio-Cortez have teamed up of late — for lunch, legislative matters and video messaging — they have drawn millions of eyeballs.
They have also raised eyebrows.
Warren fans wonder whether — and hope that — Ocasio-Cortez may eventually endorse the Massachusetts senator in her bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination.
But the freshman House member, a superstar of the progressive movement, has more history with Warren’s leading rival for progressive votes in the 2020 Democratic primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. They too have teamed up on many legislative and political matters. Many Democrats find it hard to imagine Ocasio-Cortez will not eventually back Sanders, as she did in 2016.
The fact that a 29-year-old freshman House member is being sought out by two presidential candidates with years of congressional seniority who are more than twice her age speaks volumes about the state of the Democratic Party and the dynamics of its primary process.
Ocasio-Cortez embodies a younger generation of Democrats led by women and people of color — a progressive voting bloc that brings intense passion to the fight to oust President Trump. She also has a gift for creating social media sensations that old-school Democrats can only dream of.
“I would argue that she is one of the most important endorsements in the Democratic Party right now,” said Rebecca Katz, a strategist who used to work for former Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). “She has a huge reach beyond any other member of Congress. She knows how to use her voice.”
That voice could make a big difference in the sub rosa contest between Warren and Sanders for dominance among the party’s most progressive voters and in the jockeying to emerge as the leading left challenger to Joe Biden, who currently leads in polling. Sanders, who became a folk hero to progressives in his 2016 presidential bid, held a significant lead over Warren for months, but some of the latest national and regional polls — including a UC Berkeley Institute of Governmental Studies poll of California Democrats conducted for The Times — show Warren tying or surpassing Sanders.
Ocasio-Cortez told CNN this spring that she did not expect to make an endorsement in the crowded 2020 field “for a while,” but in discussing what she was looking for in a nominee, she singled out Warren and Sanders.
“What I would like to see in a presidential candidate is one that has a coherent worldview and logic from which all these policy proposals are coming forward,” Ocasio-Cortez said. “I think Sen. Sanders has that. I also think Sen. Warren has that.”
Asked for more specifics about when she would make an endorsement, her spokesman, Corbin Trent, said it would be early enough to have an impact.
“She wants to make sure her endorsement matters in the race,” he said. “Timing is important.”
One candidate she almost surely will not endorse in the early primaries is Biden.
He “does not particularly animate me,” she said in an interview earlier this spring with the Yahoo News podcast “Skullduggery.”
But she was, perhaps surprisingly, prepared to be a party loyalist in the end: “I will support whoever the Democratic nominee is,” she said.
For Democrats other than Warren and Sanders, association with Ocasio-Cortez could be risky: Party centrists worry about her high profile as a democratic socialist. She has become the poster child for Republicans’ cornerstone strategy for 2020 — portraying the entire Democratic Party as pursuing a socialist agenda.
Republicans believe their job has been made easier since several 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, including Biden, the self-styled centrist, have embraced Ocasio-Cortez’s signature issue — the Green New Deal agenda for combating climate change.
“The fact that Joe Biden is embracing the Green New Deal shows you how far left the Democratic Party has gone,” said Michael McAdams, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, the political arm of the House GOP.
A March Quinnipiac University poll found that more people (36%) had an unfavorable view of Ocasio-Cortez than a favorable one (23%). But 38% didn’t know enough to have an opinion. Opinion was of course deeply split by party: 74% of Republicans viewed her unfavorably; just 7% of Democrats did.
It is not clear how much an Ocasio-Cortez endorsement would mean in the early-voting states that matter most: In Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina, voters like to make their own judgments, and the endorsement of a progressive Democrat from New York City might not matter much.
Still, she has already succeeded in using her social-media megaphone to shape the 2020 debate and promote issues she cares about.
She called for former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland to end his long-shot presidential bid after he was booed at the California Democratic Party convention for saying Medicare for all was bad politics and policy.
She teamed up with Sen. Kamala Harris of California on a bill to expand access to federally subsidized housing. The two are not ideological soulmates but are looking for ways to promote the bill together, perhaps in a video.
Her biggest footprint has been left on the climate change debate. The Green New Deal was regarded as a wish list when Ocasio-Cortez and other progressives unveiled it earlier this year. Now it is almost a mandatory part of candidates’ stump speech.
For now, progressive candidates are happy to shine in Ocasio-Cortez’s reflected social media glow.
“Irrespective of any kind of endorsement, the fact she is often lending support for the progressive movement is so immensely helpful,” said Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager. On whether she will endorse Sanders, Shakir said, “I want to respect that she is going to have her own process. We will cross that bridge when we get to it.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s ties to Sanders reach back to his 2016 campaign, when she worked as a volunteer organizer in New York. When she ran for Congress in 2018, in her upstart primary challenge to 10-term Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley, she was endorsed by Our Revolution, a political organization close to Sanders — but not by Sanders himself.
After she won the primary, which was tantamount to winning the general election in the heavily Democratic district, she was enough of a political celebrity that she campaigned with Sanders on behalf of other Democrats in the midterm election.
Before she was even sworn in, she appeared with Sanders at a December 2018 forum on climate change.
“She is a bold progressive fighting for a Green New Deal,” Sanders said then.
The two also appeared at another event on the Green New Deal in May, when Ocasio-Cortez took a not-so-veiled swipe at Biden, just days after reports surfaced that he was considering a “middle ground” climate plan — a report his campaign denied.
“I will be damned if the same politicians who refused to act then are going to try to come back today and say we need a ‘middle of the road’ approach to save our lives,” she declared.
Ocasio-Cortez and Warren had not gotten to know each other until this year. They met for lunch in March at Olivia, a Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Washington. The lunch became a Twitter sensation after they were spotted. In response, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted about the Middle Eastern yogurt dish they ate, and got more than 100,000 “likes.”
On more substantive matters, Ocasio-Cortez supported Warren’s campaign promise to break up big tech companies. And she spoke up to deride a news report that appeared to criticize legal consulting work Warren did while she taught at Harvard Law School.
“Breaking News: Lady Had a Job, Got Paid More Than Me,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted.
Their joint video on Mnuchin, which raised questions about his role in the demise of Sears, where he had been a board member, got hundreds of thousands of views on Warren’s Facebook page.
Warren lionized Ocasio-Cortez when Time magazine asked her to write about the young member of Congress for its “100 most influential people of 2019” issue.
“A year ago, she was taking orders across a bar,” Warren wrote. “Today, millions are taking cues from her.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s divided 2020 loyalties were on full display in the “Skullduggery” interview.
“I’m very supportive of Bernie’s run” she said. “I haven’t endorsed anybody, but I’m very supportive of Bernie. I also think what Elizabeth Warren has been bringing to the table is … truly remarkable, truly remarkable and transformational.”