For more than a year now, rumors have swirled that Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is gearing up to primary Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer. She hasn’t exactly contested these rumors—part of a strategy, it seems, to keep Schumer worried that he’ll lose his seat to a young leftist candidate, if not Ocasio-Cortez herself.
So far, it appears to be working: According to a Sunday report from the New York Times, Schumer has gone to some trouble to meet with grassroots organizers and would-be Ocasio-Cortez voters in recent months, in an apparent attempt to shield himself from the possibility of a primary challenge. In January, Schumer met with housing rights activists in New York, and reassured them he was talking to members of Congress like Ocasio-Cortez, Bernie Sanders, and Ilhan Omar, a move that not-so-subtly aligns him with the progressive wing of the party.
The policies he’s supported as of late are also noticeably to the left of where Schumer was a few years ago. In December, when then-president-elect Biden was asked about his position on student debt cancellation, Schumer encouraged him to forgive up to $50,000 of debt rather than the $10,000 he said he originally supported. He also pushed Biden enact this policy as part of an executive order—something Biden has expressed uncertainty about—as opposed to leaving it to Congress.
More recently, the Times reports, Schumer has taken bolder stances on decriminalizing marijuana, and co-sponsored legislation with Congressman Cory Booker to address the racial wealth gap.
There’s no consensus among progressives as to whether it’s worth actually launching a serious primary bid against Schumer; but from what I can tell, all agree it’s useful to make him think one may await him in 2022.
The ambient threat also fits in with some progressives’ larger plans to exert influence over Biden’s agenda. If longtime Democratic incumbents—and especially the newly minted Democratic Senate Majority Leader—begin losing their seats to insurgent candidates like Ocasio-Cortez, or, more recently, House members like Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, it’s a problem for Biden, too. That possibility makes it advantageous for both more moderate members of the party and Biden to adopt more progressive measures to keep voters happy.
For his part, Schumer describes his drift to the left as the result of four years of Trump, coupled with worsening inequality and crises of all sorts. He told the Times he wants to “do the best job” for his constituents. “The world has changed and the needs of families have changed, income and racial inequality has worsened, the climate crisis has become more urgent, Trump has attacked our democracy — all of these things require big, bold action and that is what I am fighting to deliver in the Senate,” he said.
As far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t matter why Schumer chooses to do what he does so long as he does it. “It” being taking bold action to help working people as the new leader of the Senate, and pressuring Biden to do the same as president.
“It’s exciting to see how much action Schumer is currently taking,” Saikat Chakrabarti, former chief of staff to Ocasio-Cortez, told Politico. “And I hope that progressives continue pressuring him, threatening a potential primary.”