Video: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ousted 10-term incumbent Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) on June 26. Just last year the 28-year-old was working as a bartender and server. (Amber Ferguson/The Washington Post)
Washington • In her shocking primary upset of Nancy Pelosi’s heir apparent, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just did Democrats a big favor.
I mean no disrespect to Rep. Joseph Crowley, the New York Democrat she beat. The head of the House Democratic caucus is by all accounts a nice guy, and he might have made a competent speaker of the House.
But now he won’t be speaker. And this, in a very concrete way, clears the way for a new generation to take the reins of the opposition — leaders who appeal to the emerging electoral majority that already dominates the party and will soon dominate the country: progressive, young, female and nonwhite. It is no accident that Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old Latina, is all four.
A majority of House Democrats are either women, people of color or gay. A disproportionate number of their strongest candidates in November’s election are women, and many are young. Of the 54 on the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s most competitive “Red to Blue” list, 19 aren’t yet 40 years old, and 26 are women. The Cook Political Report sees Democratic women outperforming Democratic men by 15 points in primaries.
Yet until Tuesday night, the party was in the absurd position of having septuagenarians occupying all three of its top leadership positions in the House — with a somewhat-less-old white guy, the 56-year-old Crowley, waiting patiently to succeed them. This created the even more ridiculous likelihood that those leading the Democrats’ legislative opposition to President Trump, a white guy from Queens, would soon be Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a white guy from Brooklyn, and Crowley, another white guy from Queens.
Make the Outer Boroughs Great Again!
Ocasio-Cortez saved Democrats from that and improved the odds of a younger and feistier Democratic opposition emerging. With Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s departure from the Supreme Court, and with Trump poised to nominate the potentially deciding vote against abortion, gay rights, voting rights and gun control, the new blood is urgently needed.
My colleagues in the media are shoehorning Crowley’s defeat into the narrative that Bernie Sanders-like insurgents are toppling a Democratic establishment. It isn’t so, because the argument that there is a Democratic establishment resisting the progressive tide is a straw man.
Crowley lost because of the changing demographics in his district, which had been redrawn considerably after 2010 and is now only 18 percent white. Yes, Ocasio-Cortez calls herself a socialist, but Crowley was a down-the-line liberal, particularly in recent years, and a champion of single-payer health care. The issues Ocasio-Cortez used against him were largely nonideological: moving his family to Washington and taking special-interest money.
As for the insurgency, Crowley is the only Democratic incumbent to be ousted this cycle. Of the 29 candidates on the “Red to Blue” list that the DCCC endorsed during their primaries, 27 have prevailed. The Center for Responsive Politics tells me that in 85 percent of Democratic House primaries this year, 252 of 296, the winner was the candidate who raised the most money; of the 44 exceptions, 31 were women — suggesting the reason is gender, not ideology.
Analyses indicate that first-time Democratic candidates this year tend to be more liberal than incumbents, but the entire party has moved to the left. There is no “civil war” within the party because no one is pushing back against the progressives’ rise — a rise that comes in reaction to Trump but also reflects the growing prominence of women, minorities and young voters in the electorate.
The top three House Democratic leaders, California’s Pelosi, 78, Maryland’s Steny Hoyer, 79, and South Carolina’s James Clyburn, 77, show no interest in stepping down. But after November’s elections, they should set a timetable — a short one. Whoever wins the race to replace Crowley in the No. 4 spot will immediately become the party’s leader-in-waiting.
Among the contenders: Joe Kennedy (Mass.), 37, Bobby’s grandson and a former prosecutor, has charisma and a gift for oratory; Ben Ray Lujan (N.M.), 46, is a well-liked Latino and, as head of the DCCC, will be riding a wave of support if Democrats win the House; Cheri Bustos (Ill.), 56, would be a popular choice though she comes from a vulnerable district; and Adam Schiff (Calif.), 58, though another white guy, has media savvy and has deftly led House Democrats in the Russia inquiry and in intelligence matters.
The ouster of Crowley, who, fairly or not, had the aura of an old-time party boss and a conventional pol, gives the Democrats a vital chance to own the emerging electorate of young, female, nonwhite and progressive voters. This coalition can beat Trump in 2020 — and thwart Trumpism for years to come.
Follow Dana Milbank on Twitter, @Milbank.