News Politics

‘Prairie Populism’: Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders Campaign for Kansas Democrats

Ally Boguhn

"What you’re seeing I think happening in Kansas with the kind of turnouts that you’re seeing at some of these events are a kind of grassroots uprising against the status quo, both in Democratic politics and in national politics writ large."

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the democratic socialist who unseated a top Democrat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) will rally on behalf of two Kansas Democrats on Friday.

The pair were scheduled to appear in Kansas City Friday night in support of Brent Welder, who is running in the 3rd Congressional District, and appeared Friday afternoon in Wichita for 4th Congressional District candidate James Thompson ahead of the state’s August 7 primary.

“When we fight fearlessly for working class Americans, we can change our country for the better,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a series of tweets this week about her visit to Kansas. She said she was headed to the state because “an honest, grassroots, lobbyist-free movement for working class Americans can work anywhere.”

Sanders in a July 17 email to supporters explained the issues that energized voters in Ocasio-Cortez’s district also speak to the base of those across the United States. The issues highlighted by Ocasio-Cortez’s campaigned “are not just popular in Vermont, Queens, and the Bronx, they are popular everywhere,” Sanders said. “At a time of massive income and wealth inequality, and when real wages for ordinary workers continue to decline, these are the issues working families feel strongly about.”

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Republican Ron Estes narrowly defeated Thompson in an April 2017 special election for the same seat, despite the district having voted for Donald Trump by about 30 percentage points in 2016. Thompson, who is pro-choice, had won his primary that year after voters pushed back against attempts to advance an anti-choice Democrat as the district’s nominee. Among the issues highlighted on the civil rights attorney’s campaign site are “fighting for women”—which includes a vow to protect reproductive rights, support for Medicare for All, and “fighting for criminal justice reform.”

Neil Sroka, communications director of Democracy for America (DFA), told Rewire.News that Ocasio-Cortez’s visit to the state was “incredibly exciting” because “she’s giving a new boost to a movement that was already strong and powerful in a place like Kansas.”

“What’s really exciting about seeing her out there today in Kansas is that it kind of helps build on the existing grassroots energy and passion that there was in the state for Thompson, and I think that’s only going to yield a stronger performance in the August 7 primary,” said Sroka, whose organization has endorsed Ocasio-Cortez and Thompson. During the candidate’s 2017 run, DFA members contributed more than $13,000 to Thompson’s campaign and made over 287,000 volunteer phone calls on his behalf, Sroka said.

Sroka said Thompson’s platform “speaks to a fundamental understanding that Americans have that the current political system isn’t working for them while it’s working for millionaires and billionaires and wealthy and powerful interests.”

“What you’re seeing I think happening in Kansas with the kind of turnouts that you’re seeing at some of these events are a kind of grassroots uprising against the status quo, both in Democratic politics and in national politics writ large,” said Sroka, seemingly referencing a last-minute venue change for Thompson’s rally to accommodate demand.

Welder is a worker’s rights advocate and labor lawyer who supports a $15 minimum wage, Medicare for All, and reproductive rights. A February poll of likely voters conducted on behalf of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) by Public Policy Polling found the Democrat had a 7-point lead over incumbent Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder.

Adam Green, co-founder of the PCCC, told Rewire.News that Welder’s platform speaks to voters in Welder’s district. “Prairie populism is alive and well in states like Kansas,” he said. “What we’ve seen over time is that culturally conservative voters who might disagree with Democrats on issues like choice are willing to cross party lines if Democrats are making economic populism issues front and center in the campaign. And that’s why if Democrats want to win in a place like Kansas, not only can they run on Brent Welder’s pro-worker message, they must run with his pro-worker message.”

Green said nearly $50,000 has been donated by over 4,200 small-dollar, grassroots donations from PCCC members to Welder. The organization considers Welder one of its “top candidates.”

Welder faces a number of challengers in his district’s primary, including EMILY’s List-backed candidate Sharice Davids.

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