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Broken in two: Democrats divided after Rep. Crowley's defeat

Is the stunning defeat of the long-time Queens lawmaker about his district or about the future of the party? It depends on whom you ask.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Upsets  Rep. Joseph Crowley In NY Primary
Progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrates with supporters at a victory party in the Bronx after upsetting incumbent Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley on Tuesday. Scott Heins / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — A new split has emerged in the Democratic Party as officials tried to make sense of the shocking defeat of one of their party's most powerful leaders.

Was New York Democratic Rep. Joe Crowley's loss to a 28-year-old member of the Democratic Socialist of America a blip or a blimp of significance? Was it merely about one district or the future of the entire party?

Depends on whom you ask.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her allies insisted there was nothing to see here, while progressives predicted the upset will mark a historical turning point in their quest to take over the party.

"They made a choice in one district, so let’s not get yourself carried away," Pelosi said during a press conference Wednesday. "It is not to be viewed as something that stands for everything else."

Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn of South Carolina, the third-ranking House Democrat, suggested the problem was more specific to Cowley himself. "Joe is a great guy, but I don't think he paid enough attention to those constituents at home," Clyburn said.

But on the left, the takeaway couldn't have been more different.

Ezra Levin, the co-founder of the Indivisible Project, which sprung up after President Donald Trump's election, hailed the dawning of "a new political era."

"The rusting and reluctant political establishment will wake up or be woken," Levin said.

Less than a year ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was tending bar. But on Tuesday, the former Bernie Sanders campaign organizer slew a giant. Crowley was not only a 20-year veteran of Congress, but the chairman of the Democratic Party in Queens and, until Tuesday, a potential heir-apparent to Pelosi.

In New York's heavily Democratic 14th Congressional District, Ocasio-Cortez ran well to Crowley's left and criticized the party boss for taking money from corporate interests and enriching allies, like his lobbyist brother.

Half the district is Hispanic, and many agreed a young Latina looks more like the diversifying swath of the Bronx and Queens than does Crowley, a middle-aged white man. Women, meanwhile, have been disproportionately winning Democratic primaries this year.

"I suspect if you're a man running against a woman in a primary, you might be afraid," Rep. John Yarmuth, D-Ky., told reporters.

Howard Dean, the former Vermont governor and Democratic National Committee chairman, said the issue was generational, not ideological, warning the party's old guard to watch its back.

"If you don't transfer power willingly, you get to transfer it unwillingly," he told NBC News.

"This was a shocker because Joe ran the best political machine in the country," Dean said. "But the fact that a younger person defeated an older person is not shocking. It's the way of the world, it's been going on since the beginning of the planet."

The most direct impact of Crowley's loss will be on a succession plan for House Democrats, who have been led for years by a trio of septuagenarians, despite grumbling from younger members.

"This does create a challenge in terms of future leadership in the House," Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said on MSNBC. "But I think this is also an opportunity. It's a reminder of how much energy there is out there. How many folks want to come out and get engaged and participate."

Crowley, at 56, is younger than Pelosi (78), Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (79), and Clyburn (77), and was seen as consensus pick for the top job if Democrats win the House this November.

A growing number of Democratic candidates have said they won't vote for Pelosi, making her hold on power more tenuous than ever in her long career.

Meanwhile, the party's leadership bench was already getting thin before Crowley's loss. Would-be leaders seemed to grow tired of waiting and moved on other pursuits, like Chris Van Hollen, who ran for Senate in 2016, and Xavier Becerra, who became California attorney general last year.

But the upset will likely have much further-ranging ramifications for the future of the party.

Progressive insurgents have lost more primaries than they've won this year, but those in upcoming contests feel emboldened by Ocasio-Cortez's victory.

"Her campaign has been dynamic and inspiring, and it's about more than one election," said Ayanna Pressley, who is challenging a long-serving House incumbent from Massachusetts in the Democratic primary in September. "Voters are asking for more than a reliable vote — they are asking for committed, activist leadership."

Cynthia Nixon, the actress running against Gov. Andrew Cuomo in New York, said the Crowley defeat was a sign of what's to come in her own Democratic primary in September, though polls currently show her trailing.

Meanwhile, in another sign of the way the winds in the party are blowing, potential 2020 presidential candidates were quick to align themselves with Ocasio-Cortez, whether they had backed her or not.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., congratulated Ocasio-Cortez for "making history," though she did not even consider endorsing in the race, according to Ocasio-Cortez.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also touted the victory of his former campaign staffer, though he, too, had stayed out of the primary.

Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., warned that Democrats need to stay united to win in November and not take a "blue wave" for granted.

"I think we all share the same values and we need to figure out how we're going to get there," she told reporters. "We're not going to get there split."