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House leader's primary loss in New York jolts Democratic politics

Joe Crowley believed he was well position to become House Speaker in the event of A Democratic majority. His constituents, evidently, had other ideas.
Rep. Joe Crowley gestures during news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, February 25, 2015. (Photo by Lauren Victoria Burke/AP)
Rep. Joe Crowley gestures during news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, February 25, 2015.

Four years ago this month, during the last midterm election cycle, then-House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) did something totally unexpected: he lost in a Republican primary to a largely unknown first-time candidate.

The seven-term incumbent, who was well positioned to become Speaker of the House, spent about as much money on steakhouse dinners as Dave Brat spent on his entire campaign, but it was Brat who won the GOP primary by double-digits.

It was among this generation's most surprising upsets, and it was emblematic of an insurgent force on the right, asserting its influence in Republican politics. Four years later, something very similar happened, except this time, it was a Democratic leader who lost.

In a shocking upset, U.S. Rep. Joseph Crowley has been defeated by a 28-year-old Bernie Sanders supporter in a Democratic congressional primary in New York.Crowley, the Queens Democratic party boss who has spent two decades in Congress, was thought to have an inside track to become the next House speaker if Democrats win the majority.He was defeated Tuesday by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who has never held elected office.

It was not an especially close contest: with nearly all of the votes counted, Ocasio-Cortez appears to have won by about 15 points, despite having been outspent by the incumbent by an 18-to-1 margin

And before anyone suggests Ocasio-Cortez is too liberal to win in a general election, it's worth emphasizing that New York's 14th district is among the nation's "bluest," and she's now the overwhelming favorite to win the seat in November.

Much has been said in recent months about candidates backed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) falling short in a variety of contests this year, but yesterday was clearly an exception: not only did Ocasio-Cortez cruise to an easy win in New York, but former NAACP President Ben Jealous prevailed in Maryland's Democratic gubernatorial primary.

As Crowley exits the stage, the 10-term incumbent, the #4 Dem in the House, leaves a party he was prepared to help lead. It's too soon to say with confidence which party will control the House next year, but with the top three Democrats in the chamber -- Nancy Pelosi, Steny Hoyer, and James Clyburn -- closing in on their 80th birthdays, Crowley, 56, believed he was well positioned to become House Speaker in the event of a Democratic majority.

His constituents, evidently, had other ideas.

The jolt to Democratic politics is likely to be significant. Not only does the party face a possible leadership vacuum at a key time, but Dems are also unaccustomed to this dynamic. When Cantor lost in 2014, Republicans were at least somewhat used to the party's base toppling candidates who enjoyed institutional support: the Tea Party "wave" shook up more than a few GOP primaries in 2010 and 2012, so Cantor's defeat fit a familiar pattern.

Democrats, however, don't have a convenient frame of reference.

Postscript: Donald Trump, who's too often confused about how politics works, made the case overnight that Joe Crowley might have fared better if the House Democrat had been "nicer and more respectful" to Trump. In reality, Crowley was challenged from the left, not the right, and had the congressman cozied up to the Republican president, he would have lost by a much larger margin.