The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Crowley’s loss leaves gaping void for next generation of Democratic leaders

The Fix’s Aaron Blake analyzes Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking primary upset of Rep. Joseph Crowley and what it means for the Democratic Party. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post)

Rep. Joseph Crowley did not hide his ambition to be House speaker some day. Now, after his stunning primary loss Tuesday, the next generation of Democratic leaders is a blank slate.

The congressman from Queens set out on a mission over the past year to put himself in place to one day, whenever Democrats won back the majority, grab the gavel and run the House.

“I find myself possibly in the position of — where what I’ve attained so far in terms of leadership — that may happen in the future. It may not,” Crowley told The Washington Post last fall while campaigning for several Democrats around Las Vegas.

On Tuesday, that dream came crashing down, with Crowley becoming the latest in an entire generation of Democratic emerging leaders to fail in their quest to seize the mantle from the 70-something trio of liberals atop the House caucus for more than a decade.

Crowley’s crushing defeat came at the hands of an underfunded challenger on his ideological flank in a party primary. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 28, is a former Bernie Sanders campaign organizer who called for the abolition of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency amid the public outcry over President Trump’s migrant separation policy.

Crowley’s loss drew immediate comparisons to the stunning upset of Eric Cantor (R-Va.) four years ago when he was the sitting House majority leader and lost to now-Rep. Dave Brat (Va.) in the GOP primary.

But, in that instance, House Republicans had several other young lawmakers who had the standing and support to rise into top posts, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.), who was waiting in the wings for another year to take charge.

Crowley, 56, despite being in his 20th year in office, was considered a relative newcomer to Democratic leadership circles because the other three have been at the top since early last decade, longer than most House Democrats have even served in Congress.

There’s Nancy Pelosi, 78, the California Democrat who has served four years as speaker and is in her 12th year as minority leader; Steny H. Hoyer, 79, the Maryland Democrat who is in his 16th year serving as Pelosi’s top deputy; and James E. Clyburn, 77, the South Carolina Democrat who has been the No. 3 leader for a dozen years.

With a pivotal midterm election just months away, a growing number of Democratic candidates had been trying to escape the question of whether they support Pelosi as the next House speaker — by instead calling for an entire generational housecleaning of top leaders.

It has left the odd possibility of the Democrats’ winning a narrow majority in November and then a serious question about whether Democrats could elect a speaker with their own votes.

Pelosi and the other 70-somethings have been in something close to a staring contest over who would retire first and open the door for one of the others to take the top reins, all while the rank-and-file Democrats grew increasingly anxious about the line of succession amid a string of election defeats and disappointments.

Crowley’s loss is not a particularly important threat for the November midterm elections — President Trump received less than 20 percent of the vote in Crowley’s heavily Democratic district, which stretches from Queens to parts of the Bronx.

The loss signals the rise of a restive liberal base willing to knock off establishment Democrats, but it also leaves a void in terms of who is next in line for whenever the top three finally move aside.

One younger Democrat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal caucus politics, noted that upon his arrival several years ago, he was told to watch four players: then-Reps. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), Steve Israel (N.Y.), Xavier Becerra (Calif.) and Crowley.

“Now all are gone,” the Democrat said Tuesday night.

Van Hollen is a senator, Israel retired, Becerra returned to California to serve as attorney general, and Crowley lost Tuesday. Other members of past House leadership included Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), who is now a senator, and Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who went on to become White House chief of staff and is in his second term as mayor of Chicago.

Those other Democrats were Crowley’s peers, essentially elected in the late 1990s and early last decade, but they got on the leadership train at an earlier station than Crowley. One by one, the others decided that it wasn’t worth trying to wait out Pelosi or Hoyer, who have been rivals for decades within the caucus.

In recent years, Crowley rose to the No. 4 leadership post, chairman of the Democratic caucus, in charge of shaping the message and running caucus meetings. He had more visibility and, by dint of being more than 20 years younger this his leadership counterparts, seemed like a fresh face to House Democrats.

Now there is no natural person from the next generation. Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) is a widely respected junior member of Pelosi’s leadership team, savvy in her messaging to a working-class district. But it is also a district that went for Trump in 2016 and could leave her in political trouble in the next few years.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) is leading the campaign effort in what could be a banner year that sweeps Democrats into the majority, but he is considered tentative and in need of seasoning before a top spot opens up.

Rep. Joe Kennedy III (D-Mass.) has emerged as a favorite surrogate for Democrats on the campaign trail, even in conservative districts, with a family lineage that is a big draw for liberal donors. But Kennedy is just 37, less than half the age of the current party leaders, and has never held a true leadership position with any clout.

All of this is why Crowley, a few months ago, seemed to be the luckiest guy from his generation of colleagues. He had come along at the right moment, waiting in the wings, ready for the moment.

Last fall, as he drove between campaign stops, Crowley lost track of who would determine the next Democratic leader. “It really is all up to my colleagues to determine,” he said. “It’s me or somebody else.”

It will be somebody else — his constituents made that certain.

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