Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked many political observers when she beat incumbent congressman Joe Crowley of New York in the 2018 Democratic primary. Crowley had held the Bronx/Queens based congressional seat since 1999. Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, was a 28-year old political novice and former Bernie Sanders organizer running a progressive, grass roots campaign that capitalized on her newcomer status and the need to elect someone who looked more like the community being represented.
Will other progressive candidates, inspired by the success of Ocasio-Cortez and fellow freshman Representative Ayanna Pressley, who ousted Michael Capuano in a similar 2018 contest, challenge high-profile Democratic incumbents in this year’s primary elections?
Anecdotally, there does seem to be some evidence of an “AOC Effect.” Articles in Marie Claire and Vox have highlighted some of the progressive women challenging moderate Democratic incumbents. For example, the Marie Claire piece highlighted Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year old immigration attorney running against seven-term incumbent Henry Cuellar, a conservative House Democrat. She has garnered endorsements from Elizabeth Warren, Ayanna Pressley, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Democratic leaders in the house like Steny Hoyer (MD), Jerry Nadler (NY), and Richard Neal (MA) all face primary challengers. Wondering if the AOC Effect is a real phenomenon, I took a look at some of the Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) data collected as of early February on the 2020 women candidates for the U.S. House.*
Here's what I found.
(1) A larger proportion of Democratic women candidates for the U.S. House are challenging incumbents of their own party than did in 2018.
Examining CAWP’s candidate data from early February 2020, I found some preliminary evidence that there is indeed an influx of Democratic women running as challengers in U.S. House primaries. Compared to 2018, when just 5.9% of Democratic women primary candidates ran as challengers to incumbents, 19.5% of Democratic women running in 2020 are doing so as primary challengers. This is also the highest percentage of Democratic women running as House challengers in the three decades that CAWP has collected this data.
(2) A larger proportion of Democratic women candidates than Republican women candidates for the U.S. House are challenging incumbents of their own party in 2020.
Additionally, if the hypothesis is that the Ocasio-Cortez’s success was particularly motivating to Democratic women challengers, the significant party difference in these data offers further support: while primary challengers are 19.5% of all Democratic women running for the House this year, only 5.9% of Republican women are challenging incumbents of their own party. You can also see this clearly in the raw numbers of women running. The total number of Democratic women running as primary challengers is higher than ever this year – a 228.6% increase from 2018 – while the number of Republican women primary challengers is down from the last congressional election.
(3) But historic evidence suggests these patterns are not entirely new to a post-AOC politic. Partisan control helps to explain the rise in Democratic women’s insurgent candidacies this year; similar proportions of women candidates – of both parties – ran as challengers when their party held the House majority.
The initial peek at the data does support the notion of an AOC Effect, but a deeper dive raises some doubts that there is something distinct happening with Democratic women this year. It’s possible that there are more Democratic than Republican primary challengers simply because more Democrats are now U.S. House incumbents; the path to success for non-incumbent women is more likely to be through a primary challenge for Democrats than Republicans. With more U.S. House districts held by Democrats nationwide, it’s no surprise that we see more Republican women running to challenge Democratic incumbents in the general election this year. Looking at trends over time offers further support that partisan control is an important indicator of women’s likelihood of running as primary challengers. A similar proportion of Republican women ran as primary challengers in 2012 (18.5%) – when Republicans held the majority of seats in the U.S. House – to the proportion of Democratic women running as primary challengers this year (19.5%), a difference that is not statistically significant. The pattern in the historical data suggests that the jump in Democratic women running as primary challengers can partially be attributed to the fact that this is the first time since 2010 that Democrats have controlled the House.
If this pattern is not distinct to Democrats, is there something about recent election years that has made women of both parties more likely to take on incumbents in their own parties? The historic trends offer little support that this dynamic is new. From 2014 to 2018, the proportion of Republican women running as primary challengers has remained consistent. Furthermore, if we look back to the early 90s when Democrats controlled the House, we see high percentages of women running as primary challengers (16.2% in 1990 and 18.4% in 1992).
(4) Still, the jump in the raw number of Democratic women House candidates running as primary challengers from 2018 to 2020 is unmatched in the past three decades.
Before we completely write off the AOC Effect, let’s return to the raw numbers. A record number of women ran for and were elected to office in 2018, and we are on track to beat that record in 2020. The size of the jump in Democratic women primary challengers from 2018 to 2020 (thus far) is noteworthy. At this point in election 2020, the overall number of likely Democratic women House candidates is roughly equal to the number of women who ran in 2018, but the number of primary challengers is more than 200% greater. This surge cannot be fully accounted for by the drop in the number of Democratic women running as challengers in the general election (-28%), nor even by the combined drop in these Democratic women running as general election challengers and those running for open seats (-28.9%).
The narrative that more progressive women are running as insurgent primary challengers and upsetting the establishment isn’t necessarily wrong. As the raw numbers show, more Democratic women are running as primary challengers. However, the story is not that simple. Accounting for historical trends and partisan indicators tempers conclusions that the success of two women Democratic primary contenders in 2018 opened the floodgates for more insurgent women to run this year.
Regardless of if or how many of the women running as primary challengers were inspired by the success of AOC and Ayanna Pressley, the electoral challenges they face are immense. Incumbency advantage is difficult to overstate. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the reelection rate for incumbents has consistently been over 85% within the last 60 years. The reelection rate for the House of Representatives was 97% in 2016. In 2018, out of the 39 women who ran as primary challengers, only 6 won their primary. Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley were the only general election winners. Incumbents have name recognition, campaign infrastructure, and fundraising advantages that newcomers don’t have. Even if the AOC Effect is real, these women have a tough path to victory.
* Data includes filed and likely women candidates, as many states still have yet to reach their filing deadline. These numbers will likely change by the end of the primary election season.