By Shane Goldmacher and Jonathan Martin
Rep. Joseph Crowley of New York, once seen as a possible successor to Nancy Pelosi as Democratic leader of the House, suffered a shocking primary defeat Tuesday, the most significant loss for a Democratic incumbent in more than a decade and one that will reverberate across the party and the country.
Crowley was defeated by a 28-year-old political newcomer, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a former organizer for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, who had declared it was time for generational, racial and ideological change.
The last time Crowley, 56, even had a primary challenger, in 2004, Ocasio-Cortez was not old enough to vote.
Crowley, the No. 4 Democrat in the House, had drastically outspent his lesser-known rival to no avail, as Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign was lifted by an aggressive social media presence and fueled by attention from national progressives hoping to flex their muscle in a race against a potential future speaker.
Ocasio-Cortez had used Crowley’s role in the leadership, and the fact that he was the head of the local Democratic Party machine, against him in her bid to upend the existing political class. She will face Anthony Pappas, the Republican candidate, in the November general election.
Crowley is the first Democrat in the nation to lose a primary in 2018. His loss is most significant for a congressional incumbent since Eric Cantor, then the No. 2 Republican in the House, was defeated in 2014 to a Tea Party activist, David Brat.
Like that contest, the Crowley defeat is expected to shake up Congress, where Crowley was seen as a top contender to replace Pelosi, if she stepped aside after the midterms.
The race was not close. Ocasio-Cortez had more than 57 percent of the vote, with almost all precincts reporting.
“It’s surreal,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a live television interview as the votes were being tallied.
By then, no television showed results at what was supposed to have been Crowley’s victory party.
Crowley appeared rattled when he spoke. “I know you’re all trying your best to make me cry, but it’s not going to happen,” he told supporters.
The guitar-strumming incumbent later played Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” and dedicated it to Ocasio-Cortez.
Ocasio-Cortez is a native of the Bronx and a Latina in a Queens and Bronx district that is majority-minority, a fact she emphasized repeatedly on the trail against Crowley, who is white. In hindsight, the seat represented perhaps a perfect brew for an upset: a rusty incumbent, a charismatic challenger and a liberal district that gave Sanders more than 41 percent of the vote against Hillary Clinton.
“Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office,” Ocasio-Cortez said at the start of a biographical video that went viral last month and was viewed more than half a million times.
She ran as a woman, as a young person, as a working-class champion, as an unabashed liberal and as a person of color. She piled up endorsements from national progressive groups in recent weeks and from Cynthia Nixon, who is running her own insurgent bid for governor against Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Nixon attended the Ocasio-Cortez victory party.
“What I see is that the Democratic Party takes working-class communities for granted, they take people of color for granted and they just assume that we’re going to turn out no matter how bland or half-stepping these proposals are,” Ocasio-Cortez said in a recent interview about why she was running.
A member of the Democratic Socialists of America, Ocasio-Cortez gathered endorsements from liberal groups like MoveOn, Democracy for America, and People for Bernie. The news site The Intercept had urged her on, publishing a drumbeat of negative stories about Crowley, and glowing stories about her, in the campaign’s closing weeks.
President Donald Trump, who like Crowley is from Queens, waded in on Twitter. “That is a big one that nobody saw happening,” Trump wrote. “Perhaps he should have been nicer, and more respectful, to his President!”
Days before the election, Ocasio-Cortez had unexpectedly left New York entirely to travel to Texas to protest the ongoing separation of children from their parents who crossed the border illegally.
That came on the heels of her call to abolish the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. Crowley heated up his own rhetoric in response to her challenge, calling it a “fascist organization,” but stopped short of saying it should be dissolved.
Ten days before the primary, Crowley skipped a debate against Ocasio-Cortez and instead sent a surrogate, a Latina former city councilwoman. Ocasio-Cortez called it “a bizarre twist” on Twitter to be seated across from someone “with slight resemblance to me” instead of her opponent.
Ocasio-Cortez used the moment to generate a fresh wave of publicity in the race’s crucial closing days.
Waging a sharp and sometimes personal campaign, she attacked Crowley for not living in New York and, specifically, for sending his children to school near Washington. When tear gas was released on protesters in Puerto Rico, she tagged Crowley on Twitter and wrote, “You are responsible for this.” And when he asked her at a debate if she would endorse him, if he prevailed, she pointedly refused.
Crowley was not caught totally off guard. He had campaigned aggressively in the last six weeks, pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into television ads and mailers, often highlighting his opposition to Trump.
Crowley’s loss left Democrats in Washington stunned. In recent months, he had begun meeting with lawmakers in small groups in a quiet effort to prepare for a bid for the speakership.
His departure leaves a gaping vacuum in the House, where he is the top-ranked Democrat under the age of 70.
“Hi Nance,” Crowley greeted Pelosi when she called him shortly after his defeat. He later told reporters, “She called me to tell me how much she loves me.”
Rep. Steny Hoyer, a longtime rival of Pelosi’s, now is freed from having to worry about Crowley in his ambition to be leader. But some House Democrats, speaking anonymously to discuss a delicate topic, said Tuesday night that given the party’s changing face, it would be difficult to dump Pelosi for an older, white male lawmaker.
In a flurry of phone calls and text messages, Democratic lawmakers floated names such as Cheri Bustos of Illinois, Linda Sanchez of California, Joseph Kennedy of Massachusetts and Seth Moulton of Massachusetts as potential younger alternatives to Pelosi. But Pelosi has made clear she intends to seek the post again if Democrats take back the House, and it is not clear that any potential alternative candidate could build a coalition to defeat her.
As for Ocasio-Cortez, she had complained in recent weeks about media coverage that didn’t include her name but only that of the better-known man she was running against.
“Headlines from the Political Patriarchy,” she wrote on Twitter of one recent story.
Now, she is likely to be in headlines for years to come.