House Democrats were still reeling Wednesday after one of their top leaders, Rep. Joe Crowley, lost his primary in New York City to a 28-year-old first-time candidate named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The shocking upset is a significant blow to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and her other top deputies, who have been battling calls from within their membership to step aside and allow a new generation of leaders to take the helm. Crowley's loss adds new intensity to a simmering fight over the direction of the Democratic Party and who should lead it.
Pelosi defended her slot at the top of the party Wednesday at a news conference in the Capitol.
"I'm female; I'm progressive," Pelosi told reporters. "So what's your problem? Two out of three ain't bad."
Pelosi has become the focus of intense debate in congressional districts across the country. Republicans target her as the national image of a Democratic Party of coastal elites, while some in her own party use her as a symbol of the ways party leaders are out of sync with an increasingly diverse, progressive electorate.
Ocasio-Cortez embodies nearly every attribute of that surging left wing. She is an activist who identifies as a Democratic socialist. She has the support of liberal Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., whose platform includes Medicare for all, free college tuition for every student and abolishing Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Many top House Democrats said Wednesday that they were surprised and shaken by Crowley's loss — but they remained confident that his failure was a fluke. Pelosi told reporters that she does not believe that Democratic socialists like Ocasio-Cortez are ascendant in the party in general.
"The fact that in a very progressive district in New York it went more progressive than — well, Joe Crowley is a progressive — but more to the left than Joe Crowley, is about that district," Pelosi said. "It is not to be viewed as something that stands for everything else."
Assistant Democratic Leader James Clyburn, D-S.C., also blamed a leftward shift in Crowley's district, which covers Queens and parts of the Bronx, for the loss. But he also suggested that Crowley could have done more to make sure he understood and reflected his constituents.
"It's obvious that something went wrong with his relationship with his constituents," Clyburn said. "Sometimes you misread the tea leaves."
Clyburn, 77, and Pelosi, 78, are often criticized themselves for growing out of step with the new, fresh faces of their party — a characterization they both vehemently reject. Pelosi often calls the criticism a sexist, ageist attack, and Clyburn is quick to remind reporters of the challenges he faced running for office in the South.
"I hope you'd recognize how late in life I got here and other people who look like me," Clyburn told reporters on Wednesday. "I didn't come here at 28 because laws wouldn't allow me to be here. So don't tell me how late it was. I started late because of the laws of this country."
Others in the party, like rising star Rep. Joe Kennedy, D-Mass., simply blamed the unpredictable nature of elections.
"It is the message that comes out of every election," Kennedy said. "There's two ways to run a race, unopposed or scared."
But Kennedy said Democrats could learn from the shock of Tuesday night in New York.
Referring to what he sees as frustration of both Democrats and Republicans with Washington, Kennedy suggested: "It's worth spending some extra time making sure that every member of Congress is doing what they need to do to represent the aspirations and concerns of their district."
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Joe Crowley started the day Tuesday on a short list of Democrats who could someday be speaker of the House. By the end of the day, he had lost his primary to a 28-year-old first-time candidate. She is a Democratic socialist named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. NPR's Kelsey Snell reports Democrats and their leaders are grasping for answers about what this might mean for their party.
KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez knew from the start that her campaign to unseat the fourth-highest-ranking Democrat in the House was disruptive.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
ALEXANDRIA OCASIO-CORTEZ: Women like me aren't supposed to run for office.
SNELL: National Democrats have spent millions across the country to make sure progressives who couldn't win in competitive districts didn't survive their primaries. But she made a powerful case for herself in an immigrant-heavy part of New York that includes Queens and the Bronx.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL AD)
OCASIO-CORTEZ: A New York for the many is possible. It's time for one of us.
SNELL: She campaigned on issues like Medicare for all and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, all issues that national Democrats and leaders like Crowley were trying to avoid. Her success is reviving criticism that House Democratic leaders are out of step with their party as it moves further to the left. It's a characterization that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi mocks.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
NANCY PELOSI: Well, I'm female. I'm progressive; I'm (laughter) - and the rest. So what's your problem (laughter)?
SNELL: Pelosi told reporters Wednesday that she is certain that progressive politics and democratic socialism in particular are not ascendant in her party. Like most other House Democratic leaders, Pelosi says she believes that Ocasio-Cortez represents one part of a broader mix of a kind of big-tent Democratic party, one where far-left progressives and moderates can comfortably coincide. That may be possible, but Crowley's loss on Tuesday is reviving old calls for Pelosi and other leaders to defend their credentials.
RUBEN GALLEGO: Whoever's running for leadership is going to have to justify their existence. They're going to have to explain why they are going to represent this caucus and what they're going to do to actually, you know, be a leader.
SNELL: That's Arizona Democrat Ruben Gallego. He helped lead a group of House Democrats last year who supported Ohio progressive Tim Ryan to unseat Pelosi as House Democratic leader. At the time, they argued that Pelosi and other senior Democrats have been in power too long and have lost touch with the demands of the party. Some say Pelosi in particular is a liability for other Democrats because she has become so polarizing. Pelosi kept her job, but the party-wide shakeup was already underway thanks to Bernie Sanders. Jeff Weaver, Sanders' presidential campaign manager in 2016, says Sanders' signature issues like Medicare for all and tuition-free college helped push the party to the left.
JEFF WEAVER: Many of these issues were considered fringe issues, and now they are mainstream issues. And we take for granted that there are - of course are legions of Democratic candidates running on those platforms.
SNELL: But there are plenty of Democrats who say what happened in New York is just what happens in a liberal bastion in one of the most liberal cities in America. Many of Pelosi's top deputies like California Congresswoman Linda Sanchez say the key to winning and keeping seats in this election is finding the right candidates for the right districts.
LINDA SANCHEZ: I don't think you can speak with any certainty and make blanket statements about every district in the United States. I mean, every district is different. I think we do well when we have candidates that match the districts that they represent.
SNELL: For now, House Democrats say they're still reeling from Crowley's loss and trying to figure out what comes next. They're not ready to say who should be the leader of their party or how they'll define their platform next year. Cedric Richmond, the Louisiana Democrat who heads the Congressional Black Caucus, says the focus for all Democrats needs to be on winning at least 218 House seats in November, enough to win back control of the House.
CEDRIC RICHMOND: If the speaker's a Republican, who gives a crap? So the truth of the matter is what we should be fighting for is getting to 218.
SNELL: He may be OK to wait to talk about leadership in the fall, but other young Democrats may not want to wait so long. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.