AOC triples down on Pelosi — and calls for pro-choice party purity test in wake of Roe
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speaks at a House Oversight Committee hearing (screen grab)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Now that Roe v. Wade is nullified – along with the reproductive rights it enshrined for women – progressives are increasing pressure on Democratic Party leaders to rip up their old playbook. They say two things are clear: 1. Roe was ripped away on their watch, and 2. they have no concrete plan to reinstate it.

A case in point, to increasingly restive progressives, is that even after the Roe decision was leaked back in May, Democratic Party leaders continued to support anti-abortion Texas incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar over his progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros. That runoff divided establishment Democrats from the party’s growing ranks of progressives, many of whom are inspired and supported by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

“This is why we do this,” AOC told reporters – as she clapped and stomped her foot for emphasis – just minutes after the Supreme Court formally abolished Roe, “and this is why sometimes the isolation from the caucus and the targeting from leadership and all this stuff, that's why it's worth it, because this isn't about the Democratic Party of today. This is about the Democratic Party of tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that, and we really need to start reassessing how big this tent really is.”

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Before even arriving in Washington, AOC ruffled Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s feathers when she shocked the establishment by defeating Joe Crowley in a primary; forcing the Democratic Party’s once rising star to retire from Congress and become a lobbyist. Ocasio-Cortez didn’t stop on the campaign trail. Soon after arriving in Washington, AOC joined youth climate protestors as they protested climate complacency by holding a sit-in in the speaker’s suite.

Since then, the two have publicly clashed roughly every few months over policy, strategy, or who to back in an election. While Pelosi – an 18-term incumbent herself – has focused her limited time and seemingly endless resources on protecting Democratic incumbents, AOC has remained focused on bringing new, younger, and more diverse voices into antiquated party politics. The abolition of Roe v. Wade has only enlivened AOC and The Squad.

“This right here, folks, is why we've been working to transform the Democratic Party,” AOC lectured, “and we have to also have a real conversation about why we are supporting and upholding individuals who are not protecting people's rights within our own party.”

In March, Cuellar was forced into a run-off after Cisneros came within a point and a half of retiring the nine-term incumbent whose district stretches from San Antonio to the border.

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After the Roe decision was leaked, it was business as usual for those party leaders here in Washington, even as Cisneros and other progressives increased pressure on Democratic leaders to open their eyes to this new, post-Roe reality.

“I am calling on Democratic Party leadership to withdraw their support of Henry Cuellar, the last anti-choice Democrat in the House,” Cisneros said in a statement released the day after the leak. “With the House majority on the line, he could very much be the deciding vote on the future of our reproductive rights, and we cannot afford to take that risk.”

Just three days before the Supreme Court formally snuffed out Roe, the recount of that Democratic primary was decided. Cuellar eked out his 10th primary win by just a few hundred votes. His victory was in no small part due to the support and resources he maintained from top Democratic leaders in the House, including Pelosi – who traveled to the district on Cuellar’s behalf ahead of the primary – Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, and Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries.

After the Supreme Court’s decision to end Roe reverberated through the marble halls of the Capitol, most Democrats were both discouraged and angry. Not Cuellar. He smiled – and even awkwardly chuckled a little – as he passed the press corps on his way to the House floor.

“Same position. Pro-life Democrat guys,” Cuellar replied to Raw Story. “It doesn’t change. It’s still the same position.”

“What about younger women in your district who might get raped?” I asked.

“Well, I do have exceptions,” Cuellar said.

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“But the Supreme Court doesn't,” I replied.

Cuellar’s stance on abortion isn’t like most Democrats. Rather, he’s in line with Republicans like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Green (R-GA) – and she celebrated the morning the court killed Roe.

“It’s great. It's a blessing,” an ecstatic MTG told Raw Story at the Capitol. “It's an answer to prayer.”

Unlike Cuellar, most anti-abortion lawmakers don’t believe in exemptions for rape or incest.

“Here's what I say is, whether a pregnancy is planned or unplanned that, it's a blessing to be a mother,” MTG said moments after Roe was eradicated. “Of course, those are horrible situations. Terrible.”

With millions of women now living under restrictive state laws that will force them to carry unwanted pregnancies to term, AOC and other progressives – from Bernie Sanders to many grassroots organizers – say it’s time to upend things.

“Just three years ago did we get a majority of Democrats really, really supporting choice,” AOC bemoaned of the culture of complacency that Democratic Party leaders have fostered in recent years.

In 2006, Pelosi first captured her gavel from the GOP by supporting then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel’s (D-IL) election blueprint. With George W. Bush in the White House and two wars raging abroad, Democrats moved the party’s historic focus on social issues to the side, and party leaders ran anti-abortion, pro-gun, tax-cutting moderates – also called Blue Dog Democrats.

It worked. Impressively well. That is, if power was the end goal. Because any notion of party purity was brushed aside as the Democratic Party got a conservative and very southern tint to it – one the party hadn’t seen since back when Nixon deployed his racist ‘Southern Strategy’ – a transformative effort that’s left a mark on the party to this day.

Besides temporarily broadening the Democratic Party’s tent, the party’s newfound ranks soon became thorns in the party leader’s sides.

“People don’t realize we didn’t have a pro-choice majority in the House. We didn’t have a pro-choice majority ever in the House, until 2018,” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) – co-chair of the House Pro-Choice Caucus and close Pelosi ally – said after she delivered a speech to abortion supporters at Washington’s Union Station.

Before the Supreme Court ruling officially came down on Friday, June 24, earlier that morning, DeGette and other leaders of the Pro-Choice Caucus met at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee HQ close to the Capitol to pour over abortion polling data in battleground districts. Once the ruling came out, DeGette helped coordinate Capitol Police protection for House Democrats who marched to the Supreme Court from the Capitol.

“It was cathartic,” DeGette said after the march.

When pressed on how to revitalize voters so the party can restore reproductive rights to women, DeGette was bullish.

“We already harnessed it. The reason why we have a pro-choice majority in the US House is because of activism at the local level,” DeGette argued. “People who would vote for congresspeople or state legislators who were anti-choice have slowly been changing that and electing folks who are pro-choice. So it's already changing, but now this is going to make it very real to millions of people across the country.”

The morning the Roe decision came down, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) – a task force leader on the Pro-Choice Caucus – also reviewed abortion polling data. Like DeGette, she said the numbers also make her optimistic.

“I just saw some very compelling polling data that goes against the grain of most Americans in this country,” Schakowsky told Raw Story after the ruling. “They do not think that the Supreme Court – and don't think that politicians and the government – ought to be making this decision.”

Even as Republicans have felt the wind at their backs heading into these midterms that were expected to focus on inflation and the economy, these veteran Democrats see power in those poll numbers. They also see potential electoral power in the court’s decision.

“I think it accelerates the whole movement to oppose what is happening. You know, this is not a maybe; it happened,” Schakowsky said.

After being accused by the party’s base of being caught flat-footed, President Biden and his administration became more proactive. The Department of Health and Human Services unveiled as a federal resource so women and young girls know their rights. It also directs those in states where abortion is now – or soon will be – illegal to so they can more easily find the closest abortion clinics and even contraceptives in this strange, scary, and confusing new post-Roe world.

Progressives say Democratic Party leaders are thinking too small. Republicans have dominated state elections in recent years, which enabled them to remake many congressional districts after the last census. Those local battles – along with gubernatorial races and now all-important state Supreme Court elections – are now vital for Democrats to try and preserve reproductive rights. But the party’s historically been bad at it.

“We have to get good. We have to understand what the stakes are. This is not a joke anymore,” Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) told Raw Story after addressing a pro-choice rally. “The house is on fire, and we have to get water to put it out.”

Like AOC, Omar also endorsed Cisneros in her failed bid to oust the anti-abortion incumbent Cuellar. She says party leaders must wake up and get aggressive with Supreme Court politics.

“They are going to limit a woman's right to have autonomy over their bodies. They might come after LGBTQ people. They will come after voting rights and everything we hold dear,” Omar said, “and it's going to be up to us to roll up our sleeves and get to work.”

Congresswoman Ocasio-Cortez used her organizer skills to oust that longtime New York incumbent back in 2018, and she says the party needs to tap into that organizer mentality. She says party leaders continue thinking too small.

“There's going to be immediate actions that are going to be necessary on the grassroots organizing level,” AOC said. “You have the policy response, but then you also have the people's response.”

Rallies and protests are no longer enough.

“I think we need to have protests, but there's a lot of people who are sick of holding up signs,” AOC continued. “I think that protests are an important tool in our arsenal, but we also need to be mobilizing abortion funds, we need to be opening our home, we need to be developing relationships that transcend class, because [who] this is going to affect the most are poor people.”

To AOC and other progressives, polling data and policy debates aren’t the need right now. They say policy is personal – it’s people, after all – and normal Washington responses fall short this time.

“We're going to have to open our homes. We're going to have to…financially support – or even just time support, volunteer support – people who are crossing state lines in order to seek safe harbor,” AOC said.

Many traditional Democratic voters in blue states will be fine, AOC argued, but the party will now be tested on its commitment to the least of these.

“Demographically and statistically, if you are wealthy, if you're white, and if you're a cisgender woman, this ruling will not affect you that much,” AOC contended. “Not as much as it will affect people who are poor, non-binary, and/or just in a marginalized state, where crossing a state line isn't even an option, because you're two, three, four states away from a place that that provides abortion care.”

As Democratic Party leaders focus on polls and planning ahead of November, AOC said the party needs to stop trying to expand its tent. Instead they need to expand their hearts, while also broadening their vision.

“We need to understand that elections are not the be all and end all of politics, and we need to expand our understanding of how things actually happen,” AOC said. “Elections are the absolute bare minimum – voting is the bare minimum.”