(Bloomberg Opinion) -- The big story from Tuesday’s primaries was the surprise defeat of a veteran member of Congress from New York by an unknown challenger. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old activist and first-time candidate, defeated Joe Crowley and put an end to a congressional career which might someday have given him the Speaker’s gavel. It wasn’t even close; Ocasio-Cortez won by some 15 percentage points.
This shocker leaves two big and only marginally related questions: Why did it happen? And what will Democratic members of the House believe was the reason it happened?
It’s too early to answer the first one. The possible factors are pretty straightforward. The district has changed dramatically over time, becoming a majority-minority district represented by a white man. Crowley hadn’t had to deal with that because he hadn’t faced a primary in years. Indeed, he never had to win the district by primary election in the first place; he was the designated successor of a member who dropped out after the filing deadline in 1998 in order to steer the seat to Crowley.
Since the Queens district is as safely Democratic as it gets, Crowley really didn’t have a lot of useful campaign experience — despite being in the House for 20 years. For what it’s worth (and we should always be very cautious about this kind of information) plenty of reporters and operatives who know the district were saying Tuesday night that he had been out-worked and out-organized. One hard fact that might support that claim is that Crowley didn’t bother showing up for a debate, sending a substitute instead.
It’s very possible that Ocasio-Cortez out-campaigned him, but again everything winners do always looks brilliant and everything losers do always looks awful — at least in retrospect.
Ocasio-Cortez may also have been helped because Democratic voters have repeatedly seemed to be searching out women to support.
One other factor: New York’s unusual split primary, in which only the federal ballot was contested Tuesday, produced a tiny turnout. It’s possible that Ocasio-Cortez had more intense, enthusiastic supporters, something that matters when only a few turn out to vote.
Those are the factors that people seem to be talking about so far. I’ll wait for expert analysts to dive in, although my guess is that district demographics will prove quite important. I would say, however, that any talk about a civil war within the party or a massive ideological shift is just not consistent with what’s been happening in other districts all year. While it is true that Democrats are more and more consistently liberal (or even, in some cases, true leftists), there’s little sign of the kinds of radicalism that have plagued the Republican Party and made it so hard for them to govern.
Whether the election is ultimately very important beyond turning out one Democrat for another, however, doesn’t really depend on what actually happened.
Various groups will now try to convince House Democrats that this earthquake was caused by whatever cause would help their faction. So any group supporting policies Ocasio-Cortez ran on will argue that the victory revolved around those. Socialist and very liberal Democrats will claim that this result vindicates their argument for having more influence in the party. Mainstream liberals, however, may instead warn of the danger to all members who neglect their district (or at least who duck debates).
If one of those explanations catches on, Democratic politicians will adjust their behavior accordingly to avoid suffering the same fate. That’s why, for Democratic party actors, it’s worth fighting over. If, for example, Democrats wind up believing the cause was ideology, they’ll shift to more extreme policy positions to survive; if, instead, they interpret the result as an endorsement of running candidates who match a district's demographics, that will help some future candidates and hurt others.
The size of the effect isn’t easy to predict — but I’d guess the surprise nature of the upset in New York will probably make the explanation for it more influential.
1. Josh Putnam at FHQ has the latest on what the Democrats are going to do about the superdelegates.
2. Stephen Ansolabehere on the future of partisan gerrymandering after the Supreme Court’s decision this month.
4. My Bloomberg Opinion colleague Noah Feldman isn’t very happy with the Supreme Court’s travel ban decision.
6. Charles Gaba on premiums for next year on the Affordable Care Act exchanges, which may have been flat if it wasn’t for Republican action to undermine them. That Democrats, not Republicans, are running on health care this year is solid evidence (if not proof) that this was foolish electoral policy, whatever else it may have been.
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