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Progressive pushback in the Democratic Party could push out the old guard

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez defeated Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) in a primary election upset. It was the most significant loss for a Democratic incumbent in years and one that will reverberate across the party and the country. (David Dee Delgado/The New York Times)

In my March 8, 2017, column “Tea Party-Style Anger Brewing Within Democrat Circles,” I wrote that a Tea Party-type insurgency was in the making.

Those who disagreed with me were probably thinking in the context of the Tea Party as we know it: an angry, conservative, grassroots movement that opposed the Washington establishment, government spending, the erosion of Christian America and health care changes. In less than two years, the Tea Party went from the outer fringes of the Republican Party to taking it over.

But I never said that a radical liberal revolution would happen by the 2018 midterm elections or even the 2020 presidential race. “That doesn’t mean it won’t happen eventually,” I wrote. “The progressive wing of the Democratic Party is charting the same course the Tea Party was on.”

Last week’s Democratic primaries were a sign that the course is still being plotted. In what was one of the largest establishment dethronings in recent memory, U.S. Rep. John Crowley of New York’s 14th Congressional District was defeated by 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic socialist who just a year ago was bartending and had never held public office.

Crowley had represented the New York City district for nearly two decades and was the Democrats’ fourth-ranking House member — someone who was eyed to succeed Nancy Pelosi as party leader whenever the time came. He had the support of the establishment, he outspent Ocasio-Cortez 10-to-1 and is by no means a moderate or conservative Democrat.

His loss was easily the largest congressional upset since 2014 when then-Republican House Majority Leader Eric Cantor was bested in a primary by Tea Party challenger David Brat. Many are now wondering if Ocasio-Cortez’s victory is a further sign, like the Republicans with Cantor, that the Democratic Party is indeed under siege by a more leftist faction.

Nancy Pelosi doesn’t seem to think so. “They made a choice in one district, so let’s not get yourself carried away,” Pelosi said during a press conference the day after the election. “It is not to be viewed as something that stands for everything else.”

But it wasn’t one district, or even one race. Progressive Ben Jealous won the Democratic primary in the Maryland governor’s race. Progressives won state office elections in Maryland and Colorado.

Juanita Perez Williams. (Michael Davis/Syracuse New Times)

And in Central New York, Dana Balter held off a late challenge from former Syracuse mayoral candidate Juanita Perez Williams in the 24th Congressional District. Balter had been endorsed by every Democratic county committee in the district: Onondaga, Cayuga, Wayne and Oswego. She also had the support of numerous local progressive groups and the Bernie Sanders-backed organization Our Revolution.

Perez Williams jumped into the race in April at the behest of the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which local Democrats criticized for “meddling” in the contest. Perez Williams was painted by national party leaders as the more winnable candidate against Republican Rep. John Katko, but ended up losing to Balter by 25 points.

Whether or not these types of candidates can win general elections remains to be seen. Ocasio-Cortez will more than likely win in November in the heavily Democratic-leaning district. It’s much harder to say whether or not Balter’s progressive message can appeal to Central New York’s more moderate and independent voters.

But it’s clear from the successes of Ocasio-Cortez, Balter and others that national Democratic leaders are seemingly more and more out of touch with the grassroots activism that is winning over a significant portion of their base. This notion should have been recognized in 2016 when Bernie Sanders, himself a proclaimed Democratic socialist, won 45 percent of the Democratic vote for president.

A Gallup poll released on the same day as last week’s primary shows that support for Pelosi’s leadership is at a nine-year low among Democrats. It should be another signal that loyalty to the current establishment is waning rapidly.

Even in an era where leftist and centrist Democrats have a common objective in defying Donald Trump’s administration — something that has made progressive revolts much less common than some initially thought — liberals aren’t going to be satisfied with status quo representatives forever. And if Democrats fail to win back the House of Representatives in the fall, or even lose seats, the party’s Sanders wing will definitely pick up steam faster.

There’s a storm brewing, and Pelosi and the Democratic establishment are either completely oblivious to it or are completely convinced they can control it. Eight years ago, the GOP made the same miscalculations about their own angry insurgents.

Last week’s contests do not mean the Democratic Tea Party is upon us. The progressives have not hijacked Democratic mainstream politics. But I do believe they are one step closer

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