28-Year-Old Socialist Upsets Veteran Democratic Congressman

Joe Crowley, widely considered in line to replace Nancy Pelosi as party leader in the House, has been defeated.

Dave Weigel for WaPo (“Rep. Joe Crowley defeated by challenger Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez“):

The fourth-ranking Democrat in the House has lost his bid for another term: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old activist who ran on abolishing ICE and making Medicare a universal program, defeated Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) in an upset.

Crowley is the first incumbent Democrat to lose renomination since 2016, when a Philadelphia Democrat was brought down by scandal. Crowley, who was first elected in 1998, had grown his profile inside the party and faced no personal controversies.

But Ocasio-Cortez argued that the increasingly non-white district, which stretches from the Bronx to Queens, had been represented too long by a figure from the local political machine. Crowley, who chaired the Queens Democratic Party while serving in Congress, had played a major role in determining candidates for local offices. Ocasio-Cortez said that Crowley had grown too distant — he enrolled his children in a Northern Virginia school — and too dependent on donations from corporate PACs.

Crowley took the challenge seriously, spending $1.5 million in his first primary since 2004. He was the first member of Democratic leadership to endorse the House’s universal Medicare bill, and he joined protests against the Trump administration’s travel ban and its immigration control policies.

Ocasio-Cortez told voters that they could do better — she refused corporate PAC money, emphasizing that most of the $300,709 she’d raised for the campaign came from small donors, most of them from in and around the district.

Buzzfeed News (“A Young Progressive Woman Just Beat One Of The Most Powerful Democrats In Congress“) adds:

Crowley, who has been in Congress since 1999, hadn’t even faced a primary challenger since 2004.

Ocasio-Cortez in her campaign became one of the dominant voices of the left’s anti-establishment movement. She ran on a slate of issues now popular on the left — Medicare for All, abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and stripping corporate money out of politics. She’s backed by the Democratic Socialists of America and by Our Revolution, the group affiliated with Bernie Sanders. She spent the last weekend of the campaign in Texas, protesting President Donald Trump’s border policy.

“When it comes to power, we can’t just be tempted by power and money alone,” Ocasio-Cortez recently told BuzzFeed News. “What we need to do is be bold enough and courageous enough to choose leadership that takes no corporate money and advances health care, education, and housing for all.”

“Holy cow, we’re elated, and simultaneously and honestly shocked,” Corbin Trent, Ocasio-Cortez’s communications director told BuzzFeed News in a brief phone call following the election results. “I think this says Joe was wrong, he doesn’t represent the people of the 14th District.”

“Shell shocked” was the phrase an aide who works closely with Democratic House leadership used in a text to describe the night. “I don’t know what else to say. We joked about it today. I can’t believe this is real life.”

[…]

“Any old shade of blue just won’t do, I mean progressive blue,” Nina Turner, the president of Our Revolution, told BuzzFeed News Tuesday night. “You had all of these really progressive organizations working with her, and this is a big win for the people of the 14th congressional district. This is a huge upset for the establishment and the machine, not only in New York but around the country.”

EMILY’s List, the preeminent fundraising group for Democratic women, did not back Ocasio-Cortez in Tuesday’s race. “As a female progressive candidate of color, I mean, I didn’t even feel like I was welcome to EMILY’s List,” Ocasio-Cortez told BuzzFeed News of the snub in April.

[…]

A House Democrat told BuzzFeed News Tuesday night that “Democrats are going to be clamoring” for leadership positions. “The narrow way to read this is that this is a very progressive district in a progressive state, and she was to the left of him,” the Democrat said. “But a broader reading of it is that it’s a strike against these longstanding politicians who have been hanging on for years.” And while the Democrat said House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, a possible future speaker should the Democrats win back the House, will be “the biggest beneficiary” of Crowley’s loss in the tussle for leadership posts, the results could also “swallow him up.”

“Everyone talks about the Queens machine, that’s supposed to be his thing,” one New York Democratic operative told BuzzFeed News. “The fact that it let him down or he didn’t pull the trigger is shocking to me.”

Vox (“A top House Democrat just lost his primary — to a socialist“):

Crowley, having fundraised nearly $3 million for the race in New York’s 14th District, fell easily to a first-time candidate with a viral introduction video, a Democratic Socialists of America membership card, and a proudly leftist agenda. She ran on Medicare-for-all, a federal jobs guarantee, and getting tough on Wall Street. The race was called just before 10 pm for Ocasio-Cortez.

For those who closely watch elections, this is the biggest primary upset since then-Majority Leader Eric Cantor was defeated by David Brat in 2014. Brat ran on a campaign of depicting Cantor as a creature of Washington rather than a true representative of the district.

Likewise, Crowley, who has been in Congress since 1999, is the No. 4 Democrat in the House and was widely viewed as an eventual successor to Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Though he was a stalwart progressive on nearly every issue, he also had close ties to Wall Street. This made him a formidable fundraiser, something that Ocasio-Cortez turned against Crowley in the primary. She eventually fundraised about $600,000 through small-dollar donors.

[…]

What was most exciting for progressives is the degree to which Ocasio-Cortez ran to Crowley’s left. As a member of the DSA, her website is a laundry list of every blue-sky progressive policy: Medicare-for-all, housing and jobs guarantees, gun control, ending private prisons, abolishing ICE, and investment in post-hurricane Puerto Rico.

She had some help from a major Crowley misstep — he sent a surrogate to a primary debate, which led to a scathing editorial from the New York Times. “This is the second primary debate in which Mr. Crowley was a no-show. A spokeswoman for Mr. Crowley said he had scheduling conflicts that wouldn’t allow him to attend the two debates, inevitably leaving voters to wonder — what are we, chopped liver?” the editorial read.

More interesting to me than a single outcome in a very progressive district is this question:

What does this mean for the Democratic Party?

Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is a story of the complacent establishment taking voters for granted. It’s the story of how the Democratic Party is getting pulled to the left. It’s also about how it’s not just progressive policies that are reshaping the party, but also people of color.

Ocasio-Cortez ran decidedly to the left of Crowley, but she also shook up how Democrats go about getting elected. Until now, Democrats have seen big money in politics as simply a deal with the devil that had to be made. Democrats are so often outspent by Republican mega-donors that they viewed courting big-dollar donors and corporations as part of creating a level playing field.

But if one of Democrats’ top fundraisers and likely successor to Nancy Pelosi can be toppled, perhaps Democrats need to rethink that deal.

Well, maybe. But, of course, this was just a Democratic primary in a very safe Democratic district.

The late William F. Buckley, Jr. famously advocated running “the most right, viable candidate who could win.” That was way back in 1967 when the two parties were much more localized and thus ideologically diverse. But the idea was that you’d run a much more conservative candidate in Alabama than you would in Connecticut since there was “No sense running Mona Lisa in a beauty contest.” It was far better to elect a Richard Nixon, who was ideologically unreliable than go down in flames with a Barry Goldwater.

The GOP followed that philosophy pretty well for much of the next forty years but, because of changes in the media environment and the vagaries of the primary system, eventually started nominating the sort of candidates who should run in Alabama everywhere. That’s had the effect of turning it into a minority party, albeit one that has an outsized share of the levers of powers thanks to a political system that disproportionately favors rural voters.

Ocasio-Cortez is precisely the sort of candidate Democrats ought run in the Bronx. She’s young, representative of the district’s changing demographics, and absolutely electable.

But Democrats should be wary of going down the same path as the GOP. Democratic Socialism isn’t likely a recipe for national success. This contest is an outlier but there has been a wave of progressive candidates this cycle. Presumably, this is because the base has been energized by the consequences of their lack of enthusiasm in November of 2016. If the goal is to elect a Democratic majority to the House to thwart Trump—even impeach him—nominating too-left candidates in competitive districts isn’t the way to get there.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Todd says:

    Parties should nominate House candidates who do the best job of connecting with the voters in their district. In a more conservative district, this will likely be a more conservative candidate. Whereas in a diverse and very Democratic district such as NY14, nominating a young progressive/socialist makes sense.

    Where I’m not sure I totally agree with you James is your last line.

    I know this idea that a candidate can be too far left to be elected is conventional wisdom, but I don’t think we’ve seen it actually tested in a general election recently … e.g. a “winnable” district lost by a (too) progressive candidate. We have seen plenty of examples of the opposite though … careful centrist candidates, making careful centrist votes in the House or Senate, running careful campaigns designed not to “incite” their opponents (or the mythical “swing” voters), then losing the election anyway.

    Modern elections are about turnout.

    Democrats would probably be best served to run candidates who most inspire traditionally infrequent voters to get excited and come to the polls. Mainstream Democrats will show up and vote for these type of candidates too. I suppose it’s possible that you may risk losing the “Republican crossover” vote that seems to always get some moderates super excited to try to capture, but let’s be real here. If they were already willing to vote for a Democrat, I doubt that the candidate supporting Medicare for All vs. Strengthening Obamacare (which most Republican think is “socialism” anyway) is going cause them to stay home.

    … although we’ve already seen that the opposite (too careful) approach can cause some of the young, more occasional voters to skip an election.

    p.s. Also, the word “socialist” doesn’t have quite the effect that it may have 20 years ago. Republicans spent 8 years calling (moderate by almost any objective measure) Barack Obama a socialist … in 2018, I think that any disadvantage that could come from being an actual socialist is probably relatively small (in any district).

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Todd:

    Modern elections are about turnout.

    This.

  3. Modulo Myself says:

    Medicare-for-all is so far-left and unpopular that merely 59% of Americans support it. This is Bakunin territory, and I’m not sure if the left realizes how nutty they look to the 40% majority of American voters who control everything,

    12
  4. MBunge says:

    That’s had the effect of turning it into a minority party

    That is not accurate. According to Ballotpedia, Republican House candidates received 49.13% of the vote in 2016 while Democrats received 48.03%. Yes, 49.13% is technically a minority and the GOP has gerrymandered its way to more wins than its vote total necessarily merits, but you and I know that is NOT what you meant.

    This is not esoteric information that’s hard to find. This is basic data anyone with 45 seconds and a smartphone can find out. Donald Trump is not “enormously” unpopular and the GOP is not a minority party.

    And before anyone brings up the Senate vote totals in 2016, the disparity there is almost entirely due to California and its jungle primary. If CA was like the rest of the country or the rest of the country ran their elections like CA, the vote totals would likely mirror the House.

    Mike

    1
    7
  5. James Joyner says:

    @Todd: The turnout point is interesting. But we’ve seen Republicans lose winnable elections—even elections they rightly should have won—by nominating too-conservative candidates. I’m thinking Senate and Governors races, not House races.

    @Modulo Myself: I support Medicare-for-all, or something like it, at least in theory. I opposed ObamaCare mostly because I thought it made a bad system even more unworkable. But even ObamaCare was a bridge too far for most.

    3
    1
  6. Todd says:

    @James Joyner: I agree that Republicans have certainly lost some winnable races in recent years by nominating bad candidates, although I’m not sure it was their ideology that was necessarily the problem.

    Even so, I don’t think we can infer that the same dynamic would necessarily apply to the Democratic side. As I said above, we can find plenty of examples of centrist Democratic candidates losing what appeared to be winnable elections. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any recent Democratic candidates losing because they were too progressive.

  7. Todd says:

    @Todd: I suppose Russ Feingold did lose in Wisconsin in 2016, but I think a case could be made that that had more to do with Hillary Clinton being at the top of the ticket.

  8. teve tory says:

    Even though they’re the same thing, “Universal Health Care” polls poorly while “Medicare for All” polls very well*. That could be a winning issue for Democrats in the near future.

    *I read that, but I haven’t checked the numbers myself.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: Dog forbid all Americans be able to access healthcare.

  10. James Pearce says:

    Ocasio-Cortez is precisely the sort of candidate Democrats ought run in the Bronx. She’s young, representative of the district’s changing demographics, and absolutely electable.

    Part of me is thrilled that she beat Crowley –new blood > tired old incumbents– but I’m also worried about the direction here. “Young” and “demographically representative” are nice but optional and ultimately not that important. She’s going to abolish ICE?

    No, she’s not.

    1
    1
  11. teve tory says:

    Medicare-for-all is so far-left and unpopular that merely 59% of Americans support it.

    Reality has a well-known liberal bias 😛

    1
    1
  12. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Pearce: No she’s not but her focus on them could act as a check of their worst abuses.

  13. Not the IT Dept. says:

    I guarantee a lot of middle-of-the-road Dems who didn’t want to take on Crowley are kicking themselves good and hard this morning.

  14. James Pearce says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    No she’s not but her focus on them could act as a check of their worst abuses.

    Maybe.

    But the plan isn’t “Abolish ICE and if that doesn’t work, we’ll check their abuses.” The goal as stated –abolish ICE– makes me think she won’t be checking their abuses, but highlighting them. The end result of that, I think, will be a lot of righteous indignation about ICE’s practices, and very little institutional pressure to change them.

    1
    1
  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @James Joyner:

    But even ObamaCare was a bridge too far for most of the people on my former team.

    Fixed That For You. (Or was that what you meant to say all along and just got caught in a sloppy, vague elision.)

    1
    2
  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @James Pearce:

    …she won’t be checking their abuses, but highlighting them.

    And how do you suppose abuses such as these get checked, by sending the abuses to 12-Step meetings? What’s the saying…Sunlight is a great disinfectant?

  17. wr says:

    @Not the IT Dept.: “I guarantee a lot of middle-of-the-road Dems who didn’t want to take on Crowley are kicking themselves good and hard this morning.”

    I don’t know why. If the district had wanted a middle of the road dem, they would have stayed with Crowley.

  18. wr says:

    @James Pearce: “But the plan isn’t “Abolish ICE and if that doesn’t work, we’ll check their abuses.” The goal as stated –abolish ICE– makes me think she won’t be checking their abuses, but highlighting them. The end result of that, I think, will be a lot of righteous indignation about ICE’s practices, and very little institutional pressure to change them.”

    You’ve never actually negotiated for anything, have you? You don’t start out demanding the minimum you’ll accept — you start out bigger and compromise to the point you really wanted. Why this is such a mystery to you I’ll never understand.

  19. Stormy Dragon says:

    @Modulo Myself:

    Medicare-for-all is so far-left and unpopular that merely 59% of Americans support it.

    Show me a Medicare-for-all proposal with explicitly describes how it will be paid for.

    We currently spend 17.9% of the federal budget providing Medicare coverage to 15% of the population. Medicare for all makes a nice slogan, but it doesn’t scale, particularly when the plans almost all drastically expand the coverage at the same time.

    But yeah, it’s popular when it’s presented as a health care for free proposal.

  20. inhumans99 says:

    @James Pearce:

    Build the wall! Or I could have said we will build the wall and Mexico will pay for it.

    I will just leave it at that and suspect that plenty of commenters on this site will understand.

    Screw it…I am a wordy son of a gun and have more to say. Republicans are hideously good at throwing out sound bites and running with what sticks, it sounds like Ocasio-Cortez is throwing it out there and seeing if it becomes a viable rallying cry.

    Lord knows the Democrats should be doing more of this instead we let the GOP say we are for open borders when we did not say that, and yet now half the country thinks that is the soundbite that defines the current Democratic party…that drive me up a wall.

    At least if Abolish ICE goes nowhere, or causes some Democratic party members to be castigated for wanting this to happen it is a fair push back by the opposition because she would not be defending herself from words that were put in her mouth.

    Our current President said lots of crazy outlandish stuff and a lot of it stuck and helped get him into the White House, with all of the current Supreme Court decisions bending us liberals over to get you know what (hint, it is a crude word with ed tacked on the end) and the current occupant being the king of screwing over liberals because he can we are at rock bottom so Ocasio-Cortez saying something outlandish like abolish ICE might have less people clutching their pearls than you would think.

    Also, if ever there was a time to say Abolish ICE it would be when our President had to cave in to pressure due to photos of kids in cages starting to define the GOP.

  21. James Pearce says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    And how do you suppose abuses such as these get checked, by sending the abuses to 12-Step meetings?

    She’s running for Congress, right? This is how she does it: Legislation. Maybe she could get on one of the oversight committees.

    The Constitution is silent on how media shame can be used to achieve policy outcomes.

    @wr:

    you start out bigger and compromise to the point you really wanted.

    Or you have such a big ask that you get a hard no and the “negotiations” are over before they start.

    At any rate, I don’t believe “abolish ICE” is short hand for “reform ICE,” but I also don’t think Dems should adopt maximal positions and then prepare the path for retreat.

  22. Facebones says:

    Joe Crowley, widely considered in line to replace Nancy Pelosi as party leader in the House, has been defeated.

    I keep seeing this in news articles. Widely considered by who? I’m a politcally active guy, who reads the news and blogs obsessively. I live in New York City, not five miles from this district.

    I literally had never Crowley’s name before today. If he was the “number 4 democrat” in the house, then it’s time for a leadership shake up.

  23. Not the IT Dept. says:

    @wr:

    I mean: if they’d known Crowley was vulnerable, they might have taken him on.

  24. Gustopher says:

    Good. We need a few people that far to the left in Congress.

    I don’t agree with all of her positions, and she won’t get most of it enacted, but if she’s effective, she can expand the range of solutions that are considered for problems, and shift things a little more to the left.

    We have a socialist on our city council, and she’s done just that here. The rest of the council had been a moribund collection of moderate Democrats, but now we have progressive policies coming out of it, and none of the right wing horror stories are coming true. Our $15/hr minimum wage has not led to a wave of restaurant closures, for instance.

  25. TM01 says:

    IDK.
    I would have thought the lede here would have been her association with, campaigning with, and endorsement by a rabid anti-semite and racist, Thomas Lopez-Pierre.

    But whatever.

    I guess we’re all ignoring associations now.

    But we’ll be back tomorrow when it matters!

  26. Tyrell says:

    The people are not going to vote for socialism.