In a stunning upset, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old political organizer with little institutional support, defeated Rep. Joseph Crowley in the Democratic primary on Tuesday night. Ocasio-Cortez defeated Crowley by double digits, with 57 percent of the vote to Crowley’s 42 percent. Crowley, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, was considered a frontrunner to replace House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi should she choose to step down. He is also, as Queens County Democratic Party chairman, a significant political player in New York City who recently helped choose the City Council speaker.
Crowley’s loss will have ramifications for the state and the country, as it provides evidence that the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has more political momentum than the party’s establishment wing.
Ocasio-Cortez inspired passionate support among grassroots progressives, especially younger ones and those online, and she attracted favorable media coverage from left-leaning national outlets.
Other progressive candidates challenging incumbent Democrats in the congressional primaries on Tuesday failed to topple their opponents, but their strong showing demonstrated that the Democratic establishment in New York is weaker than previously supposed.
Rep. Carolyn Maloney fended off the insurgent campaign of Suraj Patel with 58 percent of the vote. In the race between Adem Bunkeddeko and Rep. Yvette Clarke, Bunkeddeko lost to Clarke by fewer than four percentage points. In another race, Jonathan Lewis lost badly to Rep. Eliot Engel, with just 16.5 percent while the incumbent coasted with nearly three quarters of the vote.
But it was Crowley’s downfall that came as a shock to many. He was, more so than some of the other House members who were challenged, an extremely active and visible presence in both New York and Washington, an aggressive fundraiser, and known for being a charming, back-slapping pol. Speaking as to why Crowley lost nonetheless, Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University and a McSilver Fellow at New York University, said that Crowley had likely overestimated his support in the district. “Quite honestly, I don’t think that he took her seriously. He hasn’t had a challenger in 14 years,” Greer said. “So when this 28-year-old comes, and she’s Latina, and she has this progressive ideas, he’s probably thinking, ‘I know this district like the back of my hand, I don’t even have to think about her.’”
Ocasio-Cortez’s victory could also have ramifications for the gubernatorial primary, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo is being challenged by Cynthia Nixon, who is running an insurgent campaign from his left flank. Ocasio-Cortez and Nixon endorsed each other the day before Election Day, meaning that Ocasio-Cortez has now demonstrated to Democrats in progressive districts throughout the state the potential political benefits of an alliance with Nixon instead of Cuomo.
Patel, the primary challenger to Maloney, rode a similar wave of anti-establishment fervor the day of the primary. “They still don’t think you’ll vote,” Patel said in a campaign video posted to Twitter, with the “they” being an anonymous cadre of establishment politicians. “On June 26, I’m counting on you to prove them wrong.”
Patel ran a tech-savvy campaign, using non-traditional canvassing measures such as reaching voters through dating apps and handing out branded condoms. Many of his volunteers were young millennials who demonstrated enthusiasm for “new blood” in politics. However, Maloney, who has been in Congress since 1993, ultimately won the race.
Another young, insurgent candidate waged a less flashy campaign than either Patel or Ocasio-Cortez, but still made waves in his district. Bunkeddeko, a community organizer, challenged Clarke, who has not had a single piece of legislation that she sponsored passed during her 12 years in Congress. Bunkeddeko was also endorsed by The New York Times.
Ocasio-Cortez, Patel and Bunkeddeko made similar arguments in their campaigns: that they were young, more progressive alternatives to the older, slightly more centrist incumbents. Ocasio-Cortez and Patel argued in favor of policies such as abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Bunkeddeko called for bringing more federal dollars to Brooklyn, specifically related to federal housing. All three candidates supported Medicare for All, and declined or refused to say whether they would support Pelosi as House majority leader if elected.
To these challengers, Crowley, Maloney and Clarke represented an entrenched political class, who had become complacent with their bygone liberal accomplishments and their traditional bases. Unlike the other insurgent candidates, Ocasio-Cortez was able to convince enough voters to vote for a new face instead of a 20-year incumbent.
“She has a message that resonated, she probably knew who to target in the district so that she didn’t waste time and money, she’s gotten a lot of national attention because she is a dynamic candidate with strong ideas,” Greer said.
These races echoed the divide in the Democratic Party that was highlighted by the primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, a breach which has only intensified since the 2016 election. The difference is not so much in policy but in style, in the idea that grassroots, non-traditional campaigning and shoot-for-the-moon progressive ideals would be a more effective governing strategy than pragmatism.
On Election Day, Ocasio-Cortez’s active online presence mixed optimistic statements with assertions that Crowley’s campaign was attempting to defeat her with dirty tricks. She retweeted favorable news articles about her campaign and messages of encouragement from her supporters throughout the day, as well as anecdotal reports of meeting with enthusiastic voters. She also accused Crowley’s campaign team of affixing Ocasio-Cortez posters to trees to get them reported to the New York City Department of Sanitation. Crowley’s campaign denied these allegations, and a spokesperson for the campaign said, “We’re far too busy turning out voters to bother with posters.”
Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign did not reply offer further evidence when asked. She had previously accused Crowley and his campaign of potential misconduct. Perhaps the bad blood between them will all be put to rest now: Crowley immediately endorsed Ocasio-Cortez in his concession speech.