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Crowley defeat puts spotlight on Pelosi’s future

The House Democratic Caucus was dealt a seismic blow on Tuesday night after Rep. Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) — widely thought of as a potential future speaker — was defeated in a shocking primary loss, ending his 20-year House career.

The defeat at the hands of a 28-year-old onetime organizer for Bernie Sanders renewed questions about the future of other top Democratic leaders, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). While Crowley’s loss removed a potential rival to Pelosi for the speakership if Democrats win the House, it was also a reminder of the generational demands for change at the top of the party hierarchy. A host of Democratic candidates this year have vowed to oppose the 78-year-old Democrat for another term as leader.

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To say Crowley’s loss to Alexandria Ocasio-Ortez, a self-described Democratic socialist, was unexpected would be an enormous understatement. The defeat drew instant comparisons to then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor’s loss to a no-name opponent in a 2014 Republican primary. Like Cantor, Crowley had vulnerabilities. But no one thought either of them could lose, and they were both caught sleeping.

Several Democratic members and aides contacted about the New York election Tuesday night were still trying to comprehend the outcome.

“Everyone is shocked,” said one Democratic lawmaker.

Crowley, currently No. 4 in Democratic leadership, had made no secret of his ambitions for the top job. And many members saw him as best positioned to take over once Pelosi (D-Calif.) finally vacated the post.

His defeat turns the leadership race — which many in the caucus assumed would come down to Crowley versus House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) once Pelosi left — on its head. Ocasio-Cortez’s win will also have big ramifications in Queens, where Crowley has long reigned as Democratic Party chair.

And the outcome is sure to send a shudder through the moderate wing of the party, where the left’s grass-roots energy had yet to claim an incumbent scalp despite a handful of progressive primary challenges this year.

Crowley’s defeat could put pressure on other members of the caucus to declare their ambitions now, given that spots rarely open up in House Democratic leadership without an assumed successor.

Chief among them is Rep. Linda Sanchez, vice chairwoman of the caucus and No. 5 behind Crowley. The California Democrat had been seen as the most vulnerable member of the leadership team after publicly calling last fall for Pelosi, Hoyer and Assistant Minority Leader James Clyburn (D-S.C.) to move on to make way for a new generation.

Sanchez could declare her intentions to run for House Democratic Caucus chair now that Crowley is no longer in the picture. But the opening could also prompt other younger, ambitious members to vie for the post. Lawmakers including Reps. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) and Ben Ray Lujan (D-N.M.) were being floated by Democratic members and aides Tuesday night.

Joe Crowley is pictured. | AP Photo

Pelosi commended Crowley in a statement while also congratulating Ocasio-Cortez, who is expected to easily win in November in the heavily Democratic district.

“As Chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, Joe Crowley brought principled, unifying and forward-looking leadership to the historic challenges of the Trump Administration,” Pelosi said. “I salute Chairman Crowley for a formidable legacy of achievement for the people of New York. I congratulate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez on her victory.”

Crowley was gracious in defeat, calling on Democrats to coalesce. “We will only be able to stop Donald Trump and the Republican Congress by working together, as a united Democratic Party,” he said.

The loss bookends a two-decade House career for Crowley, a well-liked member of the caucus who proudly touted his Irish New York heritage and was known to be clubby with colleagues. He never hesitated to offer a hug or a back slap when sharing a joke on the House floor.

Pelosi has said she will run for speaker again if Democrats win back the House in November, likely her last chance at the coveted post. Both Crowley and Hoyer had said previously they wouldn’t challenge Pelosi for the job.

But Crowley’s defeat could provide an easier path for Hoyer to ascend to Democratic leader — or potentially speaker — if Pelosi steps aside or doesn’t have the votes to win on the floor. Several Democratic candidates, many of whom are key to Democrats’ hopes of winning back the majority, have already said they won’t support Pelosi again for leader, but it’s unclear if those declarations will translate to “no” votes in November.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is pictured with Cynthia Nixon. | Getty Images

Pelosi and Hoyer have been in power as No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, for nearly 16 years. Their long reign, combined with both leaders being in their late 70s, has left some lawmakers publicly calling for other, younger options. Crowley, 56, was seen as the most likely to break the logjam because he was 20 years younger but had cut his teeth in the leadership ranks long enough that the caucus wouldn’t be starting with someone green.

Crowley was elected caucus chairman in 2016 after serving as vice chairman for four years. But the New York Democrat had long had leadership ambitions, unsuccessfully attempting to join the ranks as vice chairman and leader of House Democrats’ campaign arm in the past.

Shortly after the race was called, some House Democratic sources already started looking for signs as to why Crowley lost, with one pointing out that maybe he didn’t take the race seriously enough. Members were shocked to see Crowley on the House floor the night before the race instead of back home in his district, one source pointed out.

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