Should AOC Attempt To “Primary” Chuck Schumer?

Should AOC Attempt To “Primary” Chuck Schumer?

As a result of political division and unpredictability throughout the country, the possibility of being “primaried” (or rather, being defeated by a fellow party member during a primary election) grows larger and larger each day for even the most secure of incumbent office-holders. In particular, more and more relatively new progressive candidates appear to be taking other established Democratic Congresspeople by surprise in their efforts to shake up the status quo and usher in a new age of leadership for the party. Chief among these successful primarying candidates is Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY14), who unexpectedly won her district’s election by beating now-Former Democratic Rep. Joe Crawley (a 10-term incumbent) in the 2018 primary election. However, that election might not be the only underdog victory that Rep. Ocasio Cortez (also known as “AOC”) intends to pull off; according to The Hill, she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of launching a primary challenge against Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a U.S. Senator from New York since 1999 and the current Senate Majority Leader. While AOC’s statement in response to these rumors is in no way a guarantee or denial that she’s planning on primarying Senator Schumer, it’s important to consider the consequences of either scenario (and what it could mean for both New York and the Democratic party at large). Without further ado, here is my analysis of AOC’s possible acceptance and rejection of the chance to challenge Senator Schumer for his seat – as well as the potential positive and negative effects of both scenarios.

Yes, she should primary him.

Despite gaining the majority in the Senate and retaining their advantage in the House, the Democrats appear to be struggling with keeping their party together. With some Congresspeople, including members of a largely leftist alliance known as “The Squad,” advocating for more sweeping and progressive legislation (such as Medicare for All and the Green New Deal) and others pushing for less “radical” approaches in order to prevent alienating conservative Democrats and moderates, it’s hard to shake the impression that the Democratic Party is on the brink of a metaphorical civil war. Furthermore, the practice of “primarying” has served as a popular method for those looking to push the party into more progressive territory. In November of 2020, newly-inducted Squad members Rep. Cori Bush (D-MO1) and Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY16) won their elections by defeating a 10-term incumbent and a 16-term incumbent, respectively; both victories were feats that would seem nigh-impossible three years ago, but feasible now (in part due to the Democrats’ division). Therefore, it would be somewhat logical to conclude that challenging Schumer isn’t quite the poisoned chalice that it appears to be.

This begs the question: what would happen if AOC successfully primaries Schumer? Would it put the Democrats on the brink of collapse? All signs point to…maybe. Since a win in a New York Senate primary is all but tantamount to election, AOC primarying Schumer would likely result in a Democratic hold of the seat, and therefore have no effect on the party’s chances of retaining their Senate majority (though it is possible that moderate voters in other states would be unwilling to vote for their respective Democratic Senate candidates for fear that they try to emulate AOC’s “radical” ways). It would also represent a huge victory for progressives in the party who hope to see the Senate shift to the left. However, primarying the Democratic Senate Majority Leader would be akin to chopping off the head of the already-wounded blue snake; not only would it destroy the relationship between the progressive and moderate sides of the party (with the latter potentially viewing the former as a “threat” to their political security), but it would also add fuel to the raging fire that is the partywide vilification of AOC, who would remain a scapegoat for all of the Democrats’ woes. Even if the Democratic Party managed to recover from her primarying, there would be no significant change in its politics; the Senate Leadership mantle would likely be passed down to the current Senate Majority Whip, Dick Durbin (D-IL), who (judging from his tenure thus far) is very, very, very (and I mean VERY) unlikely to deviate from Schumer’s leadership style. On the (rather small) state-based bright side for the Democrats, AOC’s extremely blue district (NY-14) would most likely be “inherited” by another Democrat. However, this silver lining would likely be offset by the fact that New York as a whole would lose its standing as the state to which the Majority Leader belongs.

Conversely, AOC’s potential primary loss could have serious implications for the future of the Democratic Party. In New York, political candidates are barred from participating in two electoral races at the same time, meaning that AOC would not be allowed to seek re-election to her House seat should she choose to take on Schumer. Her loss in the resulting Senate primary would leave her without a Congressional position. Additionally, a Schumer victory against her would most likely be interpreted as a complete rebuke of progressive idealism from New York, since she is arguably the face of the party’s far-left wing. While the other Squad members are formidable (and, to some Democrats, impressive) in their own right, none of them (bar Rep. Ilhan Omar of MN-5) currently wield the branding, name-recognition, and influence necessary to fill the void that AOC would leave behind. Thus, the progressive wing of the party would suffer a major blow if she fails to primary Schumer successfully. 

Overall, the consequences of AOC’s attempt to primary Senator Schumer could range from controversial to dire, depending on her success. 

No, she shouldn’t primary him.

In order to understand how the Democratic Party will be affected by AOC’s hypothetical decision not to primary Schumer, it’s important to study the Democratic caucus of the Senate. At first glance, its makeup seems to be fairly diverse in terms of political stances; there are factions galore, ranging from Blue Dogs to John Lewis Democrats and Democratic Socialists to Conservative Sleeper Agents. Even with a heavy emphasis on sarcasm regarding that last designation, many Democratic Senators (such as Sen. Joe Manchin of Virginia) appear to toe the line of conservatism, making it unlikely that the few fairly left members of the caucus (including Sens. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and Jeff Merkeley of Oregon) will ever gain enough influence to bend the Senate to their will without gaining more progressive allies, a possibility that could reduce significantly if AOC declines to run against Schumer.

On a more positive note, AOC would be able to avoid suffering the same fate as some of her Democratic colleagues should she choose to avoid primarying Schumer. During the lead-up to the 2020 election cycle, Former Democratic Rep. Joe Kennedy III of MA-4 (yes, “Kennedy” as in the Kennedy family) attempted to primary the aforementioned incumbent Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) instead of running for re-election to his House seat, with predictable results. While Senators tend to wield more power and enjoy longer terms than House members, it may be better for AOC in the long run to remain in the House and look past the Senate rather than ditching the latter for the former and losing both in the process. 

Ultimately, while the Senate Democrats would most likely fail to make any political shifts without her, AOC’s potential decision not to primary Schumer would help to ensure her security in the party…for now.

So…should she primary Schumer?

After analyzing the potential consequences of each scenario, I can safely conclude that the answer is…uncertain. However, regardless of the choice she makes, it is apparent that AOC’s (and the party’s) future, is going to be very, very interesting to watch.