Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Went to War With Partisanship in Kansas

Friday's rallies amounted to an unabashed declaration of post-partisan movement building.

Kansas congressional candidate James Thompson, left, U.S Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.,  and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congressional candidate from New York, stand together on stage after a rally, Friday, July 20, 2018, in Wichita, Kan. (Jaime Green/The Wichita Eagle via AP)
Kansas congressional candidate James Thompson, left, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congressional candidate from New York, stand together on stage after a rally on July 20, 2018, in Wichita, Kan. Photo: Jaime Green/The Wichita Eagle via AP

Bernie Sanders — the most popular senator in America — and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the 28-year-old from the Bronx who made headlines by stunning longtime incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley in a New York congressional primary last month — traveled to the breadbasket on Friday in support of two congressional candidates running under the progressive banner.

Though the first of two rallies held Friday was ostensibly in support of James Thompson, a candidate for Kansas’s 4th Congressional District, the gestalt of the day’s remarks was something bigger than any one race. The speeches — particularly Sanders’s — announced a unifying theme that felt too coherent to have been thrown together for a House primary or two. Individually, the remarks were compelling. Together, they comprised an unabashed declaration of post-partisan movement building — a rebuke to those in power who fetishize every identity-based division in order to diffuse the largest coalition in the country: the working class.

Backed by groups like Justice Democrats, Our Revolution, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Thompson and Brent Welder — for whom Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders campaigned in Kansas City later in the day — are competing to represent their state’s 4th and 3rd Districts, respectively. Welder is a former labor lawyer who one poll put 7 points ahead of the Republican incumbent Kevin Yoder. But he still has to win a six-way primary battle, in which EMILY’s List has recently thrown substantial funds — $400,000 from its Super PAC — behind Sharice Davids — a Native American lesbian former Obama fellow who represents inspiring diversity, but who has taken comparatively moderate positions on single payer and a prospective repeal of President Donald Trump’s tax cuts. Welder, a senior adviser to Sanders in 2016, is running in a district which Hillary Clinton won in the last general election.

If Davids is more moderate than Welder, Tom Niermann, a teacher at a prestigious private school in the area, is the unabashed centrist in the race and recently picked up the endorsement of a prominent Republican in the state. The contest between Davids and Welder could create an opening for Niermann to slip through the primary.

His near-win is evidence, to some, that Sanders’s platform is as pragmatic as it is progressive.

If Welder represents the best pickup opportunity for House Democrats, Thompson is an even better opportunity to prove the Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez case. Thompson is looking to fill the Wichita seat — home of Koch Industries — once held by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Thompson made waves last year when he came close to defeating Republican Ron Estes in a special election in a solidly red district, falling 7 points short ahead of this year’s rematch. A civil rights attorney with no prior electoral experience, his near-win is evidence, to some, that Sanders’s platform is as pragmatic as it is progressive. “They say we should be more centrist,” Thompson said to supportive boos before arguing that if Kansans wanted a moderate, or a “Republican-lite,” they would’ve voted for Clinton in 2016.

Where electoral battles have long been viewed as a struggle over red states and blue states — an effort to dominate the map like advancing armies, on Friday, that partisan dichotomy was evoked only to be dismissed in favor of a narrative that highlights the universal struggles shared by residents in locales as diverse as Kansas and Vermont and the Bronx. Yes, Trump is a racist. Critiques of his immigration policy and calls for criminal justice reform received enthusiastic applause. And yes, Kansas went red in 2016. But Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez, and Thompson each emphasized that the enemy was not a color — not red or blue, nor black or white. It was the 1 percent, people like the three families who, as Sanders pointed out, have more wealth than the bottom half of Americans.

Where there are working-class people, exhorted Ocasio-Cortez, there is hope for the progressive movement. Later, Thompson echoed that sentiment. It’s not about Republicans or Democrats, he said, but about working people coming together.

There’s some evidence for this — both in Sanders’s surprising 2016 primary success, and in a recent Demos study, which showed that “persuadable” voters are best convinced by a narrative that calls out those who would divide working-class people on the basis of race, while asking them to unite against a common corporate enemy. But the Democratic Party has, at times, been reluctant to name the 1 percent as an adversary — perhaps because corporate donors have come to comprise a significant section of the funding base, as labor has shrunk under the pressure of anti-union laws — the latest of which, the Supreme Court’s decision in Janus v. AFSCME, dealt a crushing blow to public sector unions. As a result, the party has struggled to offer a competing narrative to Trump’s, which scapegoats immigrants and people of color as the root of white economic grievance.

But on Friday, the candidates, all of whom have sworn off corporate PAC money, showed no such reservation. And the effect was powerful.

Thousands stood in triple-digit heat to attend the Thompson rally in Wichita. In fact, the venue was changed on Thursday after all the free tickets were claimed within 10 hours of becoming available. Estimates are that about 4,000 people attended the rally, despite being timed in the middle of a workday. This in a state that Trump won by over 20 percentage points. A state where Clinton carried just two counties in 2016. A state that’s home to the Koch brothers. A state whose last governor pursued the “red state model” so thoroughly that its own Republican legislature overrode his veto on a bill to raise taxes and make up revenue from tax cuts that had hobbled the state’s economy. In some ways, it doesn’t get any redder.

This sanguine profile is the source of skepticism among certain establishment Democrats, who doubt that a democratic socialist platform can translate to this part of the country. “I don’t think that you can go too far to the left and still win the Midwest,” Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., told CNN after Ocasio-Cortez’s win. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi echoed that skepticism. “They made a choice in one district,” she said of Ocasio-Cortez voters. “So let’s not get yourself carried away as an expert on demographics and the rest of that within the caucus or outside the caucus.”

But Sanders disagrees. His belief that the Democratic Party could be a 50-state party is longstanding. “If you had a Democratic Party … which was paying attention to Mississippi, and South Carolina and Georgia, as well as Kansas and Montana and Idaho,” he told me during an interview in April, the party could win untraditional victories across the country.

Establishment Democrats tend to see registering new voters as the path toward victory in 2020, often referencing demographic trends that anticipate growing numbers of nonwhite Americans who historically vote for Democrats in disproportionate numbers. They also look to those who sat out of the 2016 election altogether. But rarely is there critical attention paid to why voters chose to stay at home. And this is important given that disproportionate numbers of oft-vaunted black voters opted out in 2016.

Yes, Republicans have restricted the franchise, but two critical reasons Americans abstained in 2016 were: 1) they didn’t like the candidates or campaign issues, and 2) they didn’t feel like voting would make a difference — both factors that could be cured by a popular independent candidate like Sanders, who speaks out boldly against the “rigged economy” and a “corrupt campaign finance system.” Ocasio-Cortez won her race by turning out voters who hadn’t been expected to vote in a midterm primary.

Friday’s highly attended rally for two democratic socialists and a former Republican civil rights lawyer disrupts that calculus.

Moreover, nonvoters in so-called fly-over country are often overlooked in this analysis on the basis that they’re too racist to hear a progressive message. But Friday’s highly attended rally for two democratic socialists and a former Republican civil rights lawyer — an Army veteran with a gun on his baseball cap and a daughter named Liberty — disrupts that calculus.

In fact, Friday’s remarks appeared to be addressed precisely to those skeptics who doubt the persuadability of rural Americans. Somewhat hubristically, given that the August 7 primary election is still weeks away, the speakers seemed to interpret the large turnout as something akin to a preliminary victory. “I thought this was a red state,” crowed Dennis Romero, head of the SEIU Local 513 who introduced Ocasio-Cortez as he looked out over the unexpectedly large crowds. Soon after, Ocasio-Cortez teased, “And they said what we did in the Bronx no one would care about it in Kansas.” The crowd roared. Kansas, she said, referencing the state’s rejection of slavery, is a “tipping point” for the nation. It might be a bit premature, but their confidence isn’t entirely unfounded.

After all, Sanders’s platform was successful in exactly those rural areas of which the Democratic Party has recently been dismissive. Sanders won Kansas, including the district in which Welder is running, in the Democratic presidential primary — a fact for which he thanked the crowd, and which he credited for the spread of progressive ideas like “Medicare for All” — and a fact that is routinely dismissed by his critics because it was a caucus rather than a primary. He was also popular in states like West Virginia, where he won every district, as well as Michigan and Wisconsin — where a lack of enthusiasm for Clinton cost Democrats dearly in 2016.

I’ve argued before that progressive, humanistic, socialist ideas were at the root of Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. And in a country with low voter turnout and high levels of apathy, ideas that speak directly to the material needs of the working class are incredibly powerful. References to “Medicare for All,” a $15 minimum wage, and campaign finance reform received the most overwhelming cheers from the crowd — regardless of who invoked those policies. “They said the people of Kansas don’t want those things,” said Ocasio-Cortez, “but you have proven them wrong.” 

Talking about his own impoverished childhood, Thompson scored a particularly impassioned response from the audience when he broke his politician’s posture and asked “what the hell is it all for” if we don’t have a living wage, “Medicare for All,” and educational opportunities for our children. At this point, any candidate who chooses to ignore the power of the progressive platform does so at their own risk — and at the risk of the Democratic Party.

Some centrists continue to express frustration at Sanders’s popularity, characterizing his supporters as engaging in a kind of unseemly hero worship, but each of the speakers seemed to concertedly downplay their individual roles while emphasizing the broader movement. “It is in your hands that the future of this nation will be decided,” urged Ocasio-Cortez. “Hope is not something that’s found, it’s something that’s made. … Change takes courage. Change takes guts. Change takes the first five people who say, ‘I chose to believe.’” At one point, Thompson even referred to himself as just a “figurehead” — a mouthpiece for the message. “It’s through you that we’re going to do this,” he said. “Let’s get to work.”

It seems clear, now, that this movement is bigger than any one person. Still, many still hope he’ll continue to be a leader for some time. “I hope Bernie runs in 2020,” Joy Ammons-Hoy, a retired black American health care worker told me after the rally. If the amount of Bernie 2016 campaign campaign gear being worn at the rally was any indication, she’s not alone.

Ocasio-Cortez isn’t done either. On Saturday, she travels just east to St. Louis, where she’ll campaign for insurgent challenger Cori Bush, who is taking on Rep. Lacy Clay Jr., who took over his congressional seat from his father.

It has been in Clay family hands since 1969.

Correction: July 21, 2018, 2:38 p.m.
An earlier version of this story referred to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by his previous title, CIA director. It has since been updated.

Top photo: Kansas congressional candidate James Thompson, left, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic congressional candidate from New York, stand together on stage after a rally on July 20, 2018, in Wichita, Kan.

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