WASHINGTON (AFP) - A 28-year-old leftist and political novice has become the face of a new breed of American Democrat after slaying a congressional giant in a New York primary, as the party seeks its 2018 battle plan against Donald Trump's Republicans.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez achieved the near-impossible on Tuesday night (June 26).
Heavily outspent and an undisputed outsider in the race, the activist and educator from the Bronx who until recently worked in a restaurant defeated 10-term congressman Joe Crowley, a member of the Democratic leadership, in a result that slammed the party like an earthquake.
She was far from the only progressive to pull off an upset on Tuesday, as voters in seven states chose candidates for November's midterm elections, when Democrats aim to reclaim control of Congress and make inroads in governors' mansions and state legislatures.
In Maryland, Ben Jealous, a liberal former head of the largest black civil rights group, won the Democratic nomination for governor, topping the establishment candidate and signalling the party's voters are placing increasing faith in minority candidates.
Should he defeat the Republican incumbent he would become only the third African-American elected to lead a US state.
And in Colorado, congressman Jared Polis's primary victory could see him elected as America's first-ever openly gay governor.
But the image of a stunned Ocasio-Cortez realising she made history in New York is what resonated Wednesday (June 27), and signalled that the progressive wing may be resurgent in the Democratic Party.
"Women like me aren't supposed to run for office," Ocasio-Cortez, born to a Puerto Rican mother and a father from the Bronx, said in a campaign video that went viral last month.
She was not supposed to win, either.
But Ocasio-Cortez pulled off the political upset of the year by delivering "a laser-focused message of economic, social and racial dignity for workingclass Americans," she told MSNBC.
"I felt like our party could be better, our message could be better, and that we could be better as a country," she said.
A member of the Democratic Socialists of America who aligns with far-left independent Senator Bernie Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez would also - should she win in November in her increasingly diverse district - become the youngest woman ever to serve in Congress.
More progressive platform?
Democrats are riding a wave of voter enthusiasm and grassroots energy in 2018, but they have struggled to define their political plan of attack against President Trump and congressional Republicans.
Sanders, whose 2016 presidential run highlighted the divide between the Democratic establishment moderates and progressives, wants to steer the party leftward, with policies including expanded Medicaid-for-all, tuition-free college, and a $15 minimum wage - all policies backed by Ocasio-Cortez.
The 76-year-old senator said victories by Ocasio-Cortez and Jealous signal that "we can most effectively oppose Donald Trump's extremism with strong progressive leadership at the state and local level." Democratic high priests are not sure that a more progressive platform is the answer.
Top House Democrat Nancy Pelosi waved off suggestions that Tuesday's far-left grassroots victories could be extrapolated to a national scale.
"Nobody's district is representative of somebody else's district," Pelosi told reporters.
Indeed, some recent races have shown that moderate Democrats are well placed to oust Republican incumbents in swing districts.
"Sanders-style candidates are still losing almost all of the Democratic primaries they run in," warned center-left think tank Third Way.
"If Democrats do regain control of the House - as we strongly hope and expect they will - it will be largely because of moderates winning in tough red and purple districts." Trump himself weighed in late Tuesday to declare that Crowley's shock loss was a sign of party disarray.
"The Democrats are in Turmoil!" he tweeted.
As the party continues to search for its identity in the Trump era, no clear standardbearer has emerged. But Tuesday's results send a clear signal that voters want new blood in leadership.
The latest Democratic upheaval carried echoes of a political shocker four years ago, when the number two House Republican Eric Cantor was ousted by a little known Tea Party-backed conservative named Dave Brat.
Brat's victory was part of a wave of outsider, anti-Washington rebellion that culminated with Trump winning the White House in 2016.
Dave Wasserman, a writer for Cook Political Report, neatly summed up the parallel: "Tea Party '14, meet Resistance '18."