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Joe Crowley Defeated in Democratic Primary in New York

Caucus chairman loses to 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in stunning upset

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., lost his primary Tuesday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley, D-N.Y., lost his primary Tuesday night. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley lost his primary Tuesday night, derailing the career of a top Democrat who was poised to move up the leadership ladder.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old former field organizer for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, led Crowley 58 percent to 42 percent, with 88 percent of precincts reporting in the 14th District, when The Associated Press called the race. 

The longtime New York lawmaker was the first sitting Democrat to lose a primary this election cycle. 

“It has been the honor of a lifetime to represent Queens and the Bronx,” Crowley said in a statement after his defeat. “I am proud of the race we ran and, more importantly, proud of all of the work we’ve done to advance this community. I want to congratulate Ms. Ocasio-Cortez on her victory tonight. I look forward to supporting her and all Democrats this November.”

Ocasio-Cortez had criticized the incumbent as tied to special interests and a political machine that dominated politics in the district.

Crowley’s campaign spent more than $3 million on the primary, and he did not have any help from national Democrats, including the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

“The Crowley team raised no flags nor asked allies for help with his primary,” a natioanl Democratic strategist said late Tuesday night.

Caucus shocker 

Crowley’s loss is sure to send shockwaves through the House Democratic Caucus. He had been mentioned as a potential candidate for speaker if Democrats win back the House and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi chooses not to run or has trouble garnering enough votes.

Ocasio-Cortez said Crowley’s sway in the caucus would come up occasionally on the campaign trail.

“The thing that we always say is, ‘Power is good if you’re using it for the right things,’” she said. “What is this power doing for us? It’s not doing anything.”

President Donald Trump called Crowley a “Big Trump Hater” in a tweet Tuesday night after the result.

“That is a big one that nobody saw happening. Perhaps he should have been nicer, and more respectful, to his President!” Trump said. 

Crowley’s defeat could set off a battle for his leadership position, should he step down. Former GOP leader Eric Cantor announced the day after he lost his Republican primary to Dave Brat in 2014 that he would step down from his post.

California Rep. Linda T. Sánchez may have a fight on her hands if she wants to move up the ladder. She narrowly won her bid for caucus vice chairwoman in 2016.

“Tonight’s developments have little practical impact on the race for the top Democratic slot since Pelosi has made clear that she’s staying put,” a senior Democratic aide said. “Real question is which younger Members of leadership will step up in their leadership roles.”

“One real way to do that now is to raise money now,” the aide added. “We literally are in a position of where we cannot afford the opportunity that exists on the map.”

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An insurgent back home 

Crowley was first elected to Congress in 1998. He had not faced a primary challenge in 14 years. 

But he had received criticism from back home last week. The New York Times published a scathing editorial criticizing him for skipping a debate with his opponent. The pair had debated days before, and met again for a debate shortly after the editorial published. 

Ocasio-Cortez said in a phone interview last week that her campaign had caught fire in the final weeks leading up to the primary. She was backed by national liberal groups including and Democracy for America.

She was originally contacted by the group Brand New Congress to run against Democratic Rep. José E. Serrano, but ultimately decided to challenge Crowley, since she lives in the 14th District. A video detailing her story caught some attention, in which she pointed out that the district’s representation did not reflect its majority-minority population. The district is 49 percent Hispanic, 9 percent African-American, 16 percent Asian-American, and 22 percent white.

Ocasio-Cortez has taken liberal positions including backing “Medicare for All” legislation and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

From the beginning, her campaign was focused on field organizing. She said she shocked local leaders when she turned in more than 5,000 petition signatures, roughly four times the required amount.

“I don’t think I’ve been actively dissuaded by any political operative,” Ocasio-Cortez said of challenging Crowley. “But largely it’s because nobody took me seriously until it was too late.”

She said she also benefited from supporters across the country phone-banking and writing postcards to voters in the district. Ocasio-Cortez said her campaign had five core staffers and a couple of hundred volunteers.

She described her strategy as “to excite and turn out our base that has not felt excited about their representation in a very long time.”

“I think that for so long people in New York City have accepted corruption and legal corruption as a fact of life. And this year everybody is just sick of it,” she said last week. “There are some places where we need to go red to blue. And there are some places that we need to go blue to bluer.”

Ocasio-Cortez will be heavily favored against Republican Anthony Pappas in November. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Democratic

Lindsey McPherson contributed to this report.