How AOC Became the Boogeywoman of the 2020 Election

Why Republican candidates can’t stop themselves from using the gentlewoman from Queens in their ads

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez arrives for a hearing about mail in-voting. Photo: Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images.

If you went by the advertisements we’ve seen this election season, you would think most Republican candidates were facing off against the same foe this November: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Forget about producing ads that focus on Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, or any of the top-ranking Democrats, GOP candidates across the country are betting that Ocasio-Cortez’s name recognition makes her the most effective target in their efforts to bank votes from fearful voters.

The closer we get to November 3, the more common the vilification of AOC has become, from Texas to Colorado and beyond. A survey published earlier this month by Business Insider found that 44% of Americans had seen an ad mentioning Ocasio-Cortez this election season. “AOC wants to plunge us into communism. She is clueless about how capitalism even works,” Republican congressional candidate Marjorie Green of Georgia falsely claimed in an ad. “AOC [is] the architect of the socialist Green New Deal,” a female voice says in another ad supporting first-term Republican Sen. Thom Tillis. The Trump campaign has also made Ocasio-Cortez a primary target, implying that she is among the puppeteers of the “radical left” working in shadows to control Biden’s political agenda. Fifteen percent of respondents said they were more likely to cast a ballot for the Republican Party after seeing this type of messaging, the Business Insider survey found.

The goal of the ads has often been twofold: linking Democratic candidates to the polarizing Ocasio-Cortez, and positioning her as a natural enemy of all Republican candidates, who then promise to take her down if they are elected to Congress. There’s also an undercurrent of bigotry present in targeting AOC specifically that’s not necessarily present in attacking powerful white Democrats such as Biden or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “It’s demonizing a way of thinking by linking it to people who are deemed as un-American,” says Celeste Montoya, an associate professor of women and gender studies at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “They can attach AOC to what they say is socialism — even though it’s Democratic socialism — and they can deem her as a racial other at a time when people are looking at Latinos as outsiders, which has been aggravated by the Trump administration.”

Conservative strategists argue that GOP voters “want the anti-AOC” and targeting her is a smart approach. They could be right: The strategy has proven effective in some corners already, regardless of how far away they are from Ocasio-Cortez’s congressional district in New York. Earlier this summer, Republican Lauren Boeber, a restaurant owner and QAnon sympathizer, won the GOP primary against Rep. Scott Tipton in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District by explicitly branding herself as an anti-AOC candidate. “I’m absolutely running against her,” Boebert told local outlet 9News (she was not). She added, “I am ready to be the one that steps up for conservative values and takes on AOC.” In campaign advertisements, Boebert tied Tipton to “AOC and her squad” even though the four-term congressman is an ardent Trump supporter whose votes aligned with the president’s agenda about 95% of the time.

Biden looks like 44 of America’s 45 presidents; AOC looks like none of them.

The level of targeting that AOC, a freshman congresswoman, has seen in House races outside her district and at the national level is unprecedented, says Kelly Dittmar, associate professor of political science at Rutgers University, Camden, and director of research and scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics. This is owed in part to the fame AOC gained after her primary upset in 2018. Another main reason, beyond her reach and her platform, is that Ocasio-Cortez’s identity as a working-class Puerto Rican woman from the Bronx is not one we’re used to seeing in American politics. That explains in part why she has become a target alongside other members of the “squad” like Rep. Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. “It is easier strategically to cue conceptions of extremism with those who bring with them identities that don’t represent what has been the norm in terms of political power,” Dittmar says. By norm, she means the prototypical older, white, and male politicians who still dominate pretty much every sphere of the political arena in the United States. That’s why attacks on Biden have not stuck in the same way that those leveled against Hillary Clinton did in 2016, and why Republicans now need foes like Ocasio-Cortez. Biden looks like 44 of America’s 45 presidents; AOC looks like none of them.

The attacks against Ocasio-Cortez have clearly been racialized, gendered, and ageist. “She’s portrayed as an idealistic, uniformed little girl in a way young men are not portrayed,” Montoya says. At the same time, Montoya says, Ocasio-Cortez is painted “as a seductress, who is luring good white men down the wrong direction” — men like Joe Biden. Ocasio-Cortez’s progressive agenda also makes it easier for Republicans to argue that the Democratic party is moving toward the left in a way that’s unacceptable, even though AOC and her colleagues are freshman congresswomen who don’t hold real institutional power in Congress. Under a presidency that began with portraying Mexican as rapists, it’s not a surprise that women of color would become the default symbols of radicalism and, therefore, useful boogeywomen.

The use of AOC in these ads might mirror the future for Kamala Harris. Even though the vice presidential candidate doesn’t share the squad’s ideology, with fewer than 50 days left until the election, she’s likely to become the next target of the GOP’s effort to tap into racial anxieties by demonizing those who are believed to be Other.

Award-winning journalist covering politics, gender, race, activism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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