In an interview with CNN this week, the outgoing Democratic senator for Missouri, Claire McCaskill, expressed confusion over the popularity of 29-year-old incoming Democratic congresswoman from New York, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whom McCaskill referred to as “a bright shiny new object.”
“I’m a little confused why she’s the thing,” McCaskill said, “but it’s a good example of what I’m talking about, a bright shiny new object, came out of nowhere and surprised people when she beat a very experienced congressman.”
McCaskill goes on to say Ocasio-Cortez has “now talked about a lot. I’m not sure what she’s done yet to generate that kind of enthusiasm, but I wish her well. I hope she hangs the moon.
“But I hope she also realizes that the parts of the country that are rejecting the Democratic party, like a whole lot of white working-class voters, need to hear about how their work is going to be respected, and the dignity of their jobs, and how we can really stick to issues that we can actually accomplish something on.”
Ocasio-Cortez has made headlines since her historic unseating of longtime Democrat Joe Crowley in the November primary for New York’s 14th congressional district. A Bronx native, she went on to land 78% of the vote (paywall) for her seat at midterms.
While Ocasio-Cortez’s political positions—like universal healthcare, tuition-free universities, and criminal-justice reform—are not particularly unique within the party, she does receive a great deal of negative and positive press. Stories have focused on everything from her finances to her clothing to her social-media spats with other lawmakers. Russell Berman at The Atlantic described the level of scrutiny Ocasio-Cortez faces as “comparable to the kind given to a top-tier presidential contender and virtually unheard of for a congressional candidate and representative-elect.”
A former bartender and the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress (and one of 10 Latina women currently in Congress), Ocasio-Cortez has also struck a chord with a demographic of young, ambitious, working- and middle-class Americans. Her social media fluency and charisma on the campaign trail helped catapult her into political superstardom, and she continues to use tools like Instagram to spread her message and humanize the workaday experience of political office. Last month, the shoes Ocasio-Cortez wore while door-knocking in the 14th district were added to an exhibition at the Cornell Costume and Textile Collection in New York:
McCaskill, who lost her re-election bid last month, is right that Ocasio-Cortez has a long road ahead. “The rhetoric is cheap,” she said to CNN. “Getting results is a lot harder.” Hanging the moon is going to be particularly tough amid the partisan fighting likely to dominate next year’s Congress.
But in today’s political climate, rhetoric and personality have proven to be incredibly powerful political tools. While Ocasio-Cortez may not have yet accomplished anything in office, she’s demonstrated a willingness to put in the hard work needed for at least one milestone: her own victory.
Looking for more in-depth coverage from Quartz? Become a member to read our premium content and master your understanding of the global economy.