EXCLUSIVE: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has already topped the fundraising charts in her short time in Congress, but the liberal darling won’t donate a cent of her millions to Democrats' House campaign organization -- a position that has rankled some of her colleagues, Fox News has learned.
Instead, Ocasio-Cortez is building her own fundraising operation for fellow progressive candidates to bypass the official Democratic Party infrastructure. Already, she's actively funding primary challengers to oust certain Democratic colleagues.
“Sometimes the question comes: 'Do you want to be in a majority or do you want to be in the minority?'” Rep. Gregory Meeks, D-N.Y., told Fox News, when asked about AOC's stance. “And do you want to be part of a team?"
Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chairwoman Cheri Bustos downplayed Ocasio-Cortez’s decision to shun dues and pointed to the record-breaking fundraising numbers the committee has notched without her.
“That's always up to individual members so I guess I don't think about it one way or another,” Bustos said when asked about Ocasio-Cortez's stance. “We’re raising record amounts of money from our members.”
The DCCC declined to comment further on the matter of Ocasio-Cortez and her dues.
Another Democrat was less diplomatic: “Deadbeat Cortez should pay her bills,” complained the Democratic source. “She’s always whining about people paying their fair share and here she is leaving her friends with the bill.”
Their gripe is that Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t given any money to the DCCC, the party arm with the sole job of electing Democrats to the House. Records obtained by Fox News show the New York Democrat has failed to pay any of her $250,000 in “dues” to the DCCC.
Her goose egg of a contribution is no accident. Ocasio-Cortez says she has beef with the DCCC and she'll withhold her money in protest of how the Democratic Party won't back insurgent progressive primary candidates, like herself, in the name of protecting incumbents.
“For me personally, I’m not paying D-trip dues,” said Ocasio-Cortez, using slang for the DCCC and citing a “myriad of reasons.”
“One, I don’t agree with the policy around blacklisting groups that help progressive candidates,” she said, referring to a DCCC effort to sideline vendors who assist challengers to members of Congress. “I think we need to evolve as a party and make room for that.”
'For me personally, I’m not paying D-trip dues.'
Instead, Ocasio-Cortez is ramping up her donor base with the help of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., whom she endorsed for president in October, to funnel money directly to progressive candidates.
Through social media posts and email solicitations, she's activated her donor network to support her hand-picked candidates. In 2019 alone, she funneled more than $300,000 to candidates she’s endorsed by hosting online fundraising campaigns for them, according to records obtained by Fox News.
“I want to help frontline members by putting that money straight into their pocket,” Ocasio-Cortez said.
Bucking the Democratic Party line, Ocasio-Cortez led online fundraisers for at least two progressives who are trying to defeat sitting Democratic members of Congress.
She solicited nearly $18,000 in donations for Marie Newman, who is taking on current Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski, a conservative Democrat who opposes abortion. She also gave Newman an additional $5,000 directly from her campaign account. Ocasio-Cortez also raised nearly $35,000 in online donations for progressive challenger Jessica Cisneros, who is trying to defeat Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas.
“Certainly, these are new times,” Cuellar said of his colleague's effort to oust him, “which is something that we certainly don't agree with.”
Cuellar said Democrats should be focused on the larger goal of beating Republicans and retaining the House majority. “To have people try to purify the caucus because they don't agree with them – 100 percent, I certainly don't agree with that.”
“Hopefully, we will start to get away from this circular firing squad," said Cuellar, who paid all his dues to the DCCC, records show.
Ocasio-Cortez views herself as a vehicle to help candidates who wouldn’t ordinarily have access to DCCC resources and “to really bring in people from outside the traditional political process,” she said.
But she does support some colleagues: “I’m happy to support some incumbents, but it’s not just a blanket rule."
In one online appeal, Ocasio-Cortez urged her supporters to back “bold swing district Democrats” by donating to Rep. Mike Levin from California, Rep. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, and Rep. Katie Hill (before she resigned from Congress amid a throuple sex scandal with a staffer).
AOC's supporters pitched in $38,000 for Levin and $35,500 Hayes -- both frontline DCCC members in competitive districts.
'Deadbeat Cortez should pay her bills.'
Other beneficiaries of her online campaigns include Sanders (nearly $36,000) and fellow liberal squad members Reps. Rashida Tlaib (about $10,000), Ilhan Omar ($29,000) and Ayanna Pressley ($3,800).
Ocasio-Cortez gained nationwide fame when the former bartender from the Bronx upset powerful 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, D-N.Y., in the 2018 primary. Now at just 30 years old, the Democratic socialist has turned into a fundraising juggernaut.
In the third quarter of 2019, she raised $1.42 million -- more than any other House Democrat. She beat out top Democrats like Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. Adam Schiff by rejecting corporate PAC dollars and traditional high-dollar fundraisers and instead relying on grassroots small-dollar fans who are rooting for the young pol and her unapologetic fight for progressive ideals, like the Green New Deal.
Her fourth-quarter fundraising is even bigger. Her campaign nearly hit its goal of raising $2 million in the final three months of 2019 from online donors from every state. That amount puts her 2019 fundraising at more than $5 million, a groundbreaking amount for the youngest female ever elected to Congress.
She’s benefited from joint online fundraising campaigns with Sanders that’s expanded her fundraising base and her commitments for reoccurring monthly contributions. His online appeals have raised more than $140,000 for Ocasio-Cortez, while she’s raised about $36,000 for Sanders by appealing to her supporters, according to her campaign.
But with all that money comes certain expectations. Her decision not to spread the wealth around has some colleagues griping that she benefits from being in the House majority without giving back to the whole team.
Rep. Meeks suggested that not paying DCCC dues and actively trying to oust certain Democratic colleagues shows a lack of respect for the party and fellow reps who have to answer to constituents more conservative than her Bronx and Queens base.
"DCCC dues are about supporting others because you want to be part of the team," he said. "The goal is to be in the majority. And the goal is, when you are on a team I would think, to respect individuals whose districts are different than yours."
Meeks said he can't recall another time when sitting Democrats were actively trying to defeat other Democrats in Congress. Ocasio-Cortez is funding Cisneros in Texas and Newman in Illinois, who also has gotten financial backing from Rep. Ro Khanna of California.
“I would hope in the spirit of teamwork that we don't see any further incursions with other members," Meeks said. "I would hope at least it stops there."
Meeks also raised concerns about the Ocasio-Cortez alliance with Sanders: "His revolution is to not just to stop the Republicans, it’s to blow up the Democratic Party."
Meeks said there's room in the party for AOC and her cohorts but appealed to them to invest in the movement. "Even if you want to change it, you’ve got to invest in it. That concerns me," he said.
Ocasio-Cortez isn’t the only member who has yet to pay dues, but she’s unique in that she’s openly thumbing her nose at the DCCC out of principle. Last March, Ocasio-Cortez urged supporters to stop donating directly to the DCCC over its rule to "blacklist" vendors, calling it “extremely divisive and harmful to the party.”
Justice Democrats and other allied progressive groups have created an alternative vendor network to help out their liberal firebrand challengers – through the website dcccblacklist.com.
The DCCC assigned the 237 House Democrats (including four delegates) a certain amount of dues they must pay to help the party win elections in November. It's a routine practice for both Democrats and Republican House members. Amounts vary based on the level of leadership and committee assignments.
More high-profile members have to pony up more money to the DCCC, with Pelosi having the highest dues at $1 million. Newer members or less prolific fundraisers have the smallest goals of $150,000 for the two-year cycle.
The October final dues report shows that Pelosi already contributed $900,000 of her $1 million goal. Majority Leader Steny Hoyer paid $600,000 of his $900,000 dues and Rep. James Clyburn paid $350,000 of his $800,000. DCCC Chair Bustos already paid all of her $575,000 in dues.
Of the 237 members with dues, 97 of them -- or more than 40 percent -- hadn’t paid anything as of October, records obtained by Fox News show. Party insiders say more members likely ponied up in the months since and they caution there’s still plenty of time for other members to pay their 2020 dues. They expect nearly all the membership to contribute in the coming months, especially after some had to stockpile money for competitive primaries.
Former DCCC chairwoman Rep. Nita Lowey said, in her experience, most members pay their dues – “some more than others.”
She said the DCCC is most effective when members work as a team.
"If you are a Democrat and you’re here, you should be part of the effort,” Lowey said from the Capitol. “But [Ocasio-Cortez] may not feel that way. Each to their own.”
Asked if Ocasio-Cortez’s refusal to pay up is a threat to the party, Lowey said, “if more people say they don’t want to pay, of course.”
But the DCCC touted raising an off-year record of $110 million through November of 2019, more than all of 2017.
And House Democrats outraised their GOP counterpart, the NRCC, every month through November by $33 million, according to the DCCC.
The purpose of the dues is to retain the House majority by helping support candidates in competitive races Democrats will need to win in November. The dues helped the DCCC back a diverse crop of 92 swing district candidates in 2018.
“The DCCC’s primary purpose is to protect and expand this Democratic caucus which has made history for its diversity across racial, demographic, and socio-economic lines,” said DCCC spokesperson Robyn Patterson.
While backing primary challengers while in Congress was once considered taboo, Ocasio-Cortez says the competition is good for the party.
“We have to earn our keep every time," Ocasio-Cortez said. "I think we have to make our case every single time.”