Joe Crowley’s Loss Is an Earthquake in Democratic Politics

National Democrats aren’t used to this.

Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Joe Crowley.
Reps. Nancy Pelosi and Joe Crowley. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

In an upset that Democrats are going to look back on for a long time, 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leftist outsider, has defeated 10-term incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, in New York’s 14th Congressional District. She will almost certainly be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, and Crowley will not be the next Speaker of the House.

“Shocking,” one senior Democratic House aide said of the result Tuesday night, noting that Crowley had been spending “a ton of time” in the district.

“They were projecting confidence.”

This is already being seen as the Democratic version of then–House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s primary defeat by Dave Brat in 2014. (Before Republicans crow too much about how the radical Democratic base is taking over the party, helping Republicans’ chances, they should recall how the 2014 general elections went.) But it’s arguably bigger. This is new territory for Democrats.

By the time Cantor lost, establishment Republicans were already accustomed to ideologically driven upsets from the base. When the party was overflowing with enthusiasm in the 2010 electoral cycle, party favorites lost Senate primaries in Nevada, Kentucky, Colorado, Delaware, and Utah. They lost important ones, again, in Indiana and Missouri in 2012. Dozens of House primaries went the wrong way. Cantor’s was the most stunning and highest-ranking upset in a Republican primary—well, until the presidential primary two years later—but fear of the base had already been a daily fact of life for national Republicans for years.

Primary upsets against deep-rooted literal party bosses don’t usually happen on the Democratic side. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, for the most part, has gotten the candidates it wanted; the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is not having much trouble ushering its preferred candidates through primaries, either. The little upsets that bubble up into this kind of climax upset were nowhere to be seen. Each district is different, but elected Democrats tend to think they have better control over their base.

Crowley’s loss will do more than instill the fear of God into Democratic members for years to come. It also leaves Democrats without a likely successor to Rep. Nancy Pelosi. Crowley was waiting patiently, in the event that Democrats won the majority but Pelosi could not cobble together 218 floor votes for the speakership. He was the last one standing from a generation of members who waited, fruitlessly, to ascend in the House after the Pelosi-Hoyer era—think of Rahm Emanuel, Chris Van Hollen, and Xavier Becerra—and now Crowley is gone, too, and not even for a new job.

In the short term, Pelosi may have crossed another potential challenger off of her list, but the bigger picture can’t be good for the existing Democratic leadership structure. Crowley, for all his accumulated power, just got taken out on the mantra of generational change. This presents an argument, for Pelosi’s detractors in the conference, that the rest of the leadership should follow suit.

A senior Democratic aide downplayed the threat to Pelosi, suggesting instead that the rest of leadership should start raising more money, which was always one of Crowley’s strengths. “Real question is which younger Members of leadership will step up in their leadership roles,” said the aide. “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.” Not that $3.5 million, for his own campaign, did much for Joe Crowley.

Of course, Crowley’s supposed ascent to the top spot was never as sure a thing as it sometimes seemed. He’s an Irish guy representing a Queens district that had changed over his decades in Congress. There had been questions among Democratic staffers about whether a white guy would have trouble taking over a caucus that was growing more diverse, and reflecting a more diverse electorate, with each cycle. (Especially with another white guy, also from New York, in charge of the Senate Democrats.) In Crowley’s case, those shifting demographics stymied him before he could find out.