Five Ex-House Candidates Could’ve Been the Next AOC, Faced Roadblocks


  • Insider talked to five former House candidates who lost primaries to more-experienced politicians.
  • The younger candidates said they generally got little to no support from official party leaders.
  • One candidate was told to “wait your turn.” Another found consultants unwilling to help.
  • Read more from Insider’s “Red, White, and Gray” series.

For young political candidates, the road to elective office is often turbulent.

When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 decided to challenge Rep. Joe Crowley in a New York district anchored in the Bronx and Queens, scores of state and local officials lined up behind the longtime Democratic incumbent, who was seen as a likely House speaker-in-waiting.

But Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t discouraged, convinced that voters in the district were dissatisfied with the way issues like minimum wage and the climate crisis were being addressed.

Fueled by grassroots energy from millennials and progressives, the then-28-year-old Ocasio-Cortez defeated Crowley by nearly 14 percentage points.

Since then, Ocasio-Cortez has become the face of the younger side of Congress, a cohort that has come to include members such as the 27-year-old GOP Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina — who will exit the House in January after losing his party primary — and Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff of Georgia, who at 35 is the youngest sitting member of the upper chamber.

But for many millennial and Generation Z office seekers, simply trying to get local leaders on board with a candidacy can be a frustrating experience with minimal financial or party support.

For every candidate like Ocasio-Cortez or Maxwell Alejandro Frost — the 25-year-old Democratic nominee to represent the Central Florida-anchored 10th congressional district and who is poised to be the House’s first Gen Z lawmaker — there are dozens of enthusiastic young candidates who are willing to serve but are instead mired in institutional hurdles.

Nida Allam

Durham County Commissioner Nida Allam competed in this year’s Democratic primary for North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District.

REUTERS/Jonathan Drake


‘I was told over and over again to wait my turn’

Four months in the making, Insider’s “Red, White, and Gray” series explores the costs, benefits, and dangers of life in a democracy helmed by those of advanced age, where issues of profound importance to the nation’s youth and future — technology, civil rights, energy, the environment — are largely in the hands of those in the twilight of their careers.

One former candidate who couldn’t break through the establishment is Nida Allam, a 28-year-old Durham County commissioner who ran to represent North Carolina’s 4th Congressional District. She was defeated by state Sen. Valerie Foushee, 66, who captured the Democratic nomination over Allam by 9 points, 46% to 37%, in this year’s primary. 

Young leaders-in-waiting often can’t help remaining engaged in public policy because they still want to be involved in their communities. But their experiences on the campaign trail reveal some of the obstacles built into the American political system.

When Democratic Rep. David Price — who has served in Congress almost continuously since 1987 — announced last year that he was stepping down after the 2022 midterm elections, Allam reflected on the now-82-year-old congressman’s legacy and her own future.

“He’s someone that I’ve looked up to my entire life in the state,” she told Insider. “I’ve been able to build a really great friendship and relationship with him. And I wanted to see this district be represented by a new generation of leadership and someone who could follow in his footsteps but also push our own state party and our leaders to look at issues in a different way.”

Allam is a progressive who was backed by Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, along with several local elected officials and national groups like the Sanders-aligned Our Revolution and the climate-focused Sunrise Movement. She said she felt that it was important to give voters — and especially younger voters — a reason to cast ballots.

But when she first sought a seat on the Durham County Board of Commissioners in 2020, Allam said, she wasn’t exactly encouraged to run — a sentiment that extended to her House campaign.

“When I was running for the congressional seat, but even when I ran for county commission, I was told over and over again to wait my turn,” she said. “We constantly hear young people being told that narrative as if these policy decisions aren’t going to impact us. You can’t just keep saying, ‘Oh, we want to excite young voters,’ but then you don’t actually create an opportunity for them.”

Allam — the first Muslim woman elected to office in North Carolina — credited Republicans for building a farm team of elected officials that she said Democrats hadn’t replicated.

“Here in North Carolina they recruit folks to run for local office,” she said of the state GOP. “They build them up to run for the state legislature and then for statewide and federal offices. And we need to have an infrastructure like that on the Democratic Party side. And that means investing in young people.”

Living in a congressional district that includes Duke University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where an issue like the climate crisis has strong resonance, Allam said some politicians had skirted around the subject, alienating younger voters.

“We have folks who are in elective office and climate change is not something that’s going to impact them 50, 60 years down the road,” she said. “They don’t act with the sense of urgency that our generation does.”

John Isemann

Former House candidate John Isemann faced ex-state lawmaker Tom Kean Jr. in the Republican primary for New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District.

Caleb Isemann/Isemann Media


‘Don’t tell anyone I answered this call’

When John Isemann decided to run for Congress for the first time as a Republican in northern New Jersey’s highly competitive 7th Congressional District, he knew he’d be taking on the scion of local GOP royalty: former state Sen. Tom Kean Jr.

But Isemann, 28, told Insider he wasn’t deterred.

“I didn’t come from money, but I believed I had the skills to build the organization, movement, and brand and was fortunate to have supporters that also believed in that,” he said.

Kean, the 54-year-old son of the popular 1980s Republican Gov. Tom Kean, served in the state legislature for nearly 21 years. He also ran for Congress in 2000, was the Republican US Senate nominee in 2006, and launched a House bid in 2020. He announced in July 2021 that he would run for Congress against Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski in a rematch of their 2020 contest, which he narrowly lost.

Neither Kean Jr. nor Malinowski — who has been the subject of a congressional inquiry and failed to disclose numerous stock trades last year — brought a different kind of politics to the historically Republican district, which stretches from the suburbs of New York City to the Pennsylvania line, Isemann said.

“The incumbent now is under congressional investigation, for ethics reasons, which is still open,” he said. “And then on the other side, you have someone who is a Mayflower, generational politician who’s been running for this specific seat since I was 6 years old.”

When Isemann was mulling over entering the race, he said, one particular incident crystallized the roadblocks that he would face in challenging Kean.

“As soon as you go out to DC consultants and Jersey consultants and say, ‘Hey, I’m going to run against Tom Kean Jr.,’ I had people hang up the phone immediately and say, ‘Don’t tell anybody I answered this call,'” Isemann said. “I had other folks pitch me on, ‘Hey, I could set you up for a congressional seat in California or North Carolina — just don’t run in that race.'”

Kean won the GOP primary in June, securing nearly 46% of the vote, followed by Phil Rizzo, a former pastor, with roughly 24% support. Isemann came in fifth place, receiving about 5% of the vote.

Despite his defeat, Isemann said he was grateful to have focused on policy during his campaign, rejecting the sensationalism that he argued has become an all too common part of politics.

“It’s going to take a sacrifice on behalf of Republicans and it’s going to take a sacrifice on behalf of like-minded Democrats to get us out of this high pace of polarization that we’re in,” he said.

Unlike Allam, he argued that Democrats had been more effective at cultivating political activism among younger voters.

“I think the challenging party does a very good job of bringing out youth — the rise of AOC in the blue wave,” Isemann said. “But I think we have yet to see a true voice of conservatives and Democrats rise up from the millennial generation or Gen Z.”

J. Miles Coleman, the associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, told Insider it’s only a matter of time before younger voters “get more into the political bloodstream.”

“The earliest wave of Gen Z can start running for Congress this cycle, so I’m sure that some of the candidates who lost will have other chances in the future,” he said.

Ray Reed

Ray Reed, who worked on the policy team of then-Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, ran for the Democratic nomination in the suburban St. Louis-anchored Second Congressional District.

Channa Steinmetz/Startland News


‘You got to go through them to get elected’

Ray Reed also contends that Gen Z’s time “isn’t coming — it’s here.”

Reed, who ran in Missouri’s 2nd Congressional District, which draws in much of suburban St. Louis, said he didn’t feel as though his current representative — GOP Rep. Ann Wagner — was fighting for his community.

He also wasn’t convinced that state Rep. Trish Gunby was the right choice to represent Democrats in a congressional district the party had been unable to flip over the past decade.

So the 25-year-old Democrat — who served on the policy team of former Gov. Jay Nixon and also worked for the Missouri Democratic Party — decided to jump into the race himself.

“I felt that she would fit the same mold as candidates who had lost time and time again,” Reed told Insider, referring to Gunby. “We knew that we’d get a lot of attention because I was 25 years old, and our job was to capitalize off that.”

But Reed said Gunby’s status as a sitting state lawmaker gave her a major boost with voters.

“I think what ended up really hurting us was that I ran against someone who had already been elected to a state House seat and had a serious iron grip on the stakeholders in the district,” he said. “You got to go through them to get elected.”

Reed continued: “I was running against an older, middle-aged white woman in my race. And here I am — this skinny 25-year-old Black kid talking about forgiving student loans and free healthcare.”

In the August Democratic primary, Gunby defeated Reed 85% to 15%.

Despite the loss, Reed had a positive view of his campaign, which included his advocacy of gun control, reproductive rights, and an extension of the child-tax credit.

“We still got a lot of folks involved who normally would not have gotten involved, especially young people in the race,” he said. “That’s why I ran.”

Reed also spoke highly of Rep. Cori Bush, who was 44 when she defeated the longtime Rep. William Lacy Clay Jr. in a Democratic House primary two years ago. The 2020 contest was Bush’s second try at unseating Clay, whose father had previously occupied the seat for decades.

Bush, along with Ocasio-Cortez, is part of the Squad, a group of progressive lawmakers pushing for policies like “Medicare for All” and universal childcare.

“Lacy Clay didn’t show up for the community in the way that Congresswoman Bush does,” Reed said. “It matters what you do with your influence in Washington.”

Jessica Cisneros

Immigration attorney Jessica Cisneros ran against Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar in 2020 and 2022.

AP Photo/Eric Gay


‘People were just waiting for someone to step up’

In 2020, an immigration attorney named Jessica Cisneros ran in a primary against Rep. Henry Cuellar, an anti-abortion Democrat, in the South Texas-based 28th Congressional District.

Cisneros — a first-time candidate who in 2014 interned in Cuellar’s Washington, DC, office — came up short in the intraparty contest, earning 48% of the vote to the congressman’s 52%.

“Nobody had really been running against Cuellar and mounting a serious challenge for a very long time, really since he was elected,” Cisneros told Insider. “And then, here comes a 26-year-old candidate, born and raised in the district and ready to put up a fight.”

While Cuellar had the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Cisneros did earn the backing of other Democrats, including Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders, Warren, and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro.

“It was a big leap of faith,” Cisneros, now 29, said of her first campaign. “It felt incredibly validating to know that I wasn’t alone. People were just waiting for someone to step up.”

Cisneros, who ran on enacting the Green New Deal and establishing a $15 federal minimum wage, was also critical of the 67-year-old Cuellar over his abortion stance. (Weeks after the May contest, the Supreme Court voted to overturn Roe v. Wade.)  

When Cisneros ran against Cuellar for the second time, she held the congressman below 50% of the vote in the initial primary before narrowly losing the runoff election (49.7% to 50.3%).

Cisneros said the results reflected a “really tough fight” but also presented an opportunity for the party to engage with newly eligible voters.

“We talk about the Democratic Party being a big-tent party,” she said. “Like this is our chance, right? To show that is true, one thing that I really want to stress to people is not to alienate all of these voters but instead bring them into this conversation about what our priorities as the Democratic Party need to be.”

Suraj Patel

Attorney and professor Suraj Patel ran against veteran Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler in the Democratic primary for New York’s 12th Congressional District.

AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson


‘Only one campaign in this race was talking about the future’

Suraj Patel, a 38-year-old attorney and professor, ran for the Democratic nomination in a Manhattan-based congressional district in 2018, 2020, and 2022.

When he announced his first campaign, he said, local and state Democrats “completely shunned” his campaign.

“You get phone calls not returned,” Patel told Insider. “You get no sort of support in any manner.”

His campaign this year focused on housing, immigration, and the economy, among other issues.

In all of his races, Patel faced Rep. Carolyn Maloney, winning 41% in his first campaign and 39% on his second try, when he came within 4 points of victory. In his third primary race, last month, he also faced Rep. Jerry Nadler, who ran in the new 12th District as a result of court-ordered redistricting. Patel earned 19% of the vote.

Nadler, 75, ousted Maloney, 76, from office. The two lawmakers combined have nearly 60 years of experience on Capitol Hill.

But where does that leave candidates like Patel who feel as if their major issues aren’t being addressed?

“Only one campaign in this race was talking about the future,” Patel said of his efforts. “At the end of this race, two campaigns were talking about the bills from 1992 or 1994 or contributing to a problem in New York City that’s a livability crisis, an inflation crisis, and a rent crisis, all of which stem from a 1990s worldview about development in this city.”

“If we don’t have a new set of leaders with new perspectives on these things,” he added, “we are not going to be able to govern this country much longer.”



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