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So Many Facets in the Downfall of a Single Democrat

Crowley’s ouster emboldens the left, scrambles House leadership and gives all incumbents pause

From left, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley, Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi all saw their political fortunes change with Crowley’s primary loss on Tuesday, Hawkings writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
From left, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley, Assistant Democratic Leader James E. Clyburn, Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi all saw their political fortunes change with Crowley’s primary loss on Tuesday, Hawkings writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

There’s some silliness to reading too much of a national trend into any single congressional election. So instead it may be better to consider Joseph Crowley’s defeat as more of a Rorschach test.

For the “Bernie Bots,” it’s a sign the progressive wing of the Democratic Party is newly ascendant.

For Nancy Pelosi, it’s a sign her job is still safe.

For the next generation of ambitious House Democrats, it’s a sign there’s no time to waste in making plain their ambitions.

For House Republicans, it’s a sign that stunning upsets are a rare but bipartisan phenomenon.

And for entrenched incumbents of both parties, it’s a sign that phenomenal fundraising is no excuse for basking in the passive good will of your constituents — and ignoring the anti-establishment passion driving the left as well as the right in American politics.

There are more than a few grains of truth in each of these perceptions, but each has some countervailing limitations as well.

What is unarguably true is that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has scored by far the most unexpected victory of this midterm election year in her first bid for public office, trouncing Crowley by 15 points (more than 4,000 votes) on Tuesday in the Democratic primary in a New York City district that connects Queens and the Bronx.

For the past 18 months, Crowley has been chairman of the Democratic Caucus, fourth in the party’s House leadership hierarchy. He becomes the most powerful Democratic member of Congress defeated in a primary in more than four decades, since Senate Foreign Relations Chairman J. William Fulbright was denied renomination by his fellow Arkansas Democrats in 1974.

An organizer for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign who was  tending bar just last fall, Ocasio-Cortez was in second grade when Crowley was first elected to the House 20 years ago and is now on course to be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. She will turn 29 four weeks before Election Day, when she will be on the ballot in a district where President Donald Trump took just 20 percent of the vote.

Watch: Pelosi Praises Crowley and His Concession Following Primary Defeat

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Not chopped liver

A member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Ocasio-Cortez campaigned for turning Medicare into the national health system, creating a federal jobs guarantee, making public colleges tuition-free and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

And so her win was the most dramatic event on the year’s best night for Democratic progressives. Another candidate backed by Sanders, Ben Jealous, won the gubernatorial primary in Maryland, while Rep. Jared Polis won the gubernatorial primary in Colorado with a promise to push state government more to the left than any of his opponents. (Another progressive, Adem Bunkeddeko, came within 1,100 votes of defeating Rep. Yvette D. Clarke in another New York primary.)

But with nominees now set in more than three-quarters of the House districts and all but a couple of contested Senate seats, there’s been nothing close to a progressive hostile takeover of the Democratic Party’s congressional wing.

Besides Ocasio-Cortez, there has been only one other nominee — at least in a district where the party has a solid shot at winning — who triumphed over someone backed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee establishment: Omaha social worker Kara Eastman, who denied former Rep. Brad Ashford a comeback and will now contest Rep. Don Bacon’s bid for a second term.

Still, it’s probably a mistake to take this year’s relatively modest showing by candidates of the far left (at least on the U.S. ideological spectrum) as a sign their movement is moribund. Nor is it a wise move to confuse the success rate of liberal interlopers with the performance potential of the outsider insurgents.

Crowley’s loss is easily the biggest upset of an incumbent since 2014, when Republican Eric Cantor was ousted in Virginia and became the only House majority leader ever defeated for re-election.  

His party went on to gain seats in that year’s midterm election, but in hindsight it’s easy to see political neophyte Dave Brat’s victory over Cantor as a harbinger of the future — the wave of outsider-driven disruption that two years later propelled Trump to take over the GOP from its longtime establishment and then win the presidency.

The decisive downfalls of Cantor and Crowley were similar in another way: Both ended up spending so much time attending to the demands of their House leadership positions, and cultivating their national ambitions, that they underestimated credible challengers hiding in plain sight.

Like so many incumbents, even occupants of the metaphoric back benches, they assumed their order-of-magnitude fundraising advantages would compensate for criticism they had “gone Washington” and were ignoring their constituents even as the demographics of their districts were shifting rapidly.

In Crowley’s case, while half the residents were white in the House district to which he was elected in 1998, only a quarter are white in the neighborhoods of New York City he represents now — thanks principally to a near doubling of the Latino population. And those newer voters clearly did not take kindly to Crowley’s decision not to show up at two of his scheduled debates with Ocasio-Cortez. The potential sign of disrespect, The New York Times said in an editorial, is “inevitably leaving voters to wonder — what are we, chopped liver?”


As reverberations from the outcome start fading in the outer boroughs, they will only intensify in the Democratic cloakroom.

The place is already rife with intrigue and bank-shot plotting by lawmakers determined to bring Pelosi’s firm but polarizing leadership of the House Democrats to an end this fall after 16 years, no matter what the result in November — and those just as committed to keeping San Francisco’s 78-year-old congresswoman and caucus galvanizer in power into the next Congress.

Lawmakers in recent weeks had been mulling a post-Democratic-victory scenario in which Pelosi would be permitted to reclaim the speaker’s gavel, which she held from 2007 through 2010, but only for a few months while she presided over a generational changing of the guard. Crowley, who turns 57 in March, had been seen as the likeliest but not certain heir apparent — and had done nothing to conceal his ambitions, without explicitly importuning colleagues to commit their future support.

His defeat renders his maneuvering pointless, of course, and also means the nascent positioning by ambitious and more junior Democrats will have to start all over again on an altered campaign landscape. Pelosi loyalists argue this positions her to stay put with minimal trouble, based on the age-old political adage that you can’t beat somebody with nobody.

But even 19 weeks can be sufficient time for a front-running alternative to emerge. And any House Democrat with aspirations to move up in the command structure has ample opportunity to put their shoulders to the wheel this summer and fall on one of the prime responsibilities of a House leader — fundraising all over the country to maximize the size of the party’s November playing field.

“Real question is which younger members of leadership will step up in their leadership roles,” a top House leadership aide emailed reporters while insisting on anonymity. “One real way to do that now is to raise money now. We literally are in a position of where we cannot afford the opportunity that exists on the map.”

If several younger members shine at the task, that could persuade a critical mass in the rank and file that they can afford — quite literally — to bid farewell not only to Pelosi but also to the second- and third-ranking members of the leadership, 79-year-old Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland and 77-year-old Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, who have also raised millions for their colleagues in every election cycle of the past quarter-century.

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