How a Young Socialist Used Closed Primaries to Defeat a 10-Term Incumbent

It was a shocking blow to the Democratic establishment Tuesday when 10-term US Rep. Joe Crowley (NY-14) was defeated in the primaries by 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Crowley is not only a long-time member of the US House, he is the chair of the House Democratic Caucus and is speculated to have been next in line for Nancy Pelosi’s position.

Needless to say, there hasn’t been a primary defeat this big since former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor.

And who is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? She is a democratic socialist and activist. She supports universal health care. She wants public financing of college tuition. She says we need to abolish ICE. She falls as far to left on the political spectrum as one can get.

For all the efforts by the Democratic Party to purge Bernie Sanders’ influence, this element of the Democratic base has sent a clear message to the party’s establishment: Don’t get too comfortable.

Now, New York has a closed partisan primary system, meaning only registered party members can participate in these elections. Winning is a matter of who can turn out more of the base than the other candidate for their campaign, and a candidate only has to appeal to their party’s base.

Bernie Sanders spoke out against closed primaries in New York and other states in 2016, saying he supported open primaries. The irony here is that it may have been harder for Ocasio-Cortez to win in an open primary because of how far to the left on the political spectrum she falls.

Having a more narrow appeal can hurt a candidate in an open contest. That is why the partisan rule of thumb is stick to your ideological corners in the primary and then move more to the center in the general.

There is something else to consider, too. And this is the more important point.

Closed primaries tend to heavily favor incumbents as they don’t often have to face serious challenges from within their own party. And since the district heavily favors Democrats, Crowley only had to avoid competition in the primary to keep his seat, which he did until his loss Tuesday.

Ocasio-Cortez used this to her advantage, portraying Crowley as a career politician who has never faced a serious challenger for his seat, got too cozy with donors, and lost touch with his constituents.

Crowley missed a debate against Ocasio-Cortez in the Bronx, sending a local councilwoman as a surrogate. He was called out by the editorial board of the New York Times for this, and Ocasio-Cortez said it was “disrespectful, not just to me but to the entire community.”

“I understand he hasn’t been challenged for 14 years,” Ocasio-Cortez said, “but that doesn’t mean that an election isn’t happening. In fact, what’s happening right now is historic and it’s an opportunity to show up for the community.”

The 14 years point is something Ocasio-Cortez repeatedly brought up throughout her campaign — highlighting the fact that the system had long protected Crowley, and she was taking it on.

She says her campaign built momentum at the grassroots level, reaching out to the so-called “non-voters” that partisan consultants would advise their candidates to ignore, and Crowley had been ignoring.

These are Democrats who feel they have been forgotten by their own party and their representative. It is important to remember that it isn’t just independents who feel shafted by the current system. There are plenty of Democrats and Republicans who feel this way too.

Ocasio-Cortez is heavily favored to win in November, which will make her the youngest member of Congress — a distinction currently held by US Rep. Elise Stefanik, who is also from New York. And she was able to use the same strategy to win as Donald Trump used in 2016:

  • She was authentic;
  • She targeted low-propensity voters and so-called “non-voters”; and
  • She used the political system against the partisan establishment it was created to protect.

People are fed up with the political status quo in the US. Millions feel disenchanted, disenfranchised, and forgotten completely — even registered members of the political parties. Many of them don’t vote because they have given up on the system entirely.

The partisan consultants continue to get these voters wrong, though. They think they are apathetic — that they don’t care. It’s the exact opposite, and if given a reason to vote, they will turn out, and they will turn the political establishment on its head.