Crowley is one of the most powerful Democrats in the House. He’s been chair of the House Democratic Caucus since 2017, and was widely viewed as a possible speaker-in-waiting. He was backed by Wall Street and dozens of labor unions, and raised more than $3 million during the primary, including donations from corporations like Facebook and Google. Ocasio-Cortez, who has never held elected office, raised roughly $300,000, and won the endorsement of progressive groups like Our Revolution, Move On, and the Black Lives Caucus.
Crowley has liberal bona fides: He’s been a strong proponent of the Affordable Care Act and, more recently, Medicare-for-all legislation, and is a harsh critic of Trump. But Ocasio-Cortez fashioned herself as the more progressive choice—a champion for workers and for racial justice. A former Bernie Sanders organizer, the Democrat campaigned on a federal jobs guarantee, cracking down on Wall Street, and tuition-free public education, and she eschewed corporate political-action committee donations. She was an early proponent of abolishing ICE, a position that amassed support this past week amid controversy over the Trump administration’s family-separation policy. On Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign posted a video of the candidate berating a Border Patrol officer at a facility housing immigrant children.
But it was a May 30 campaign ad that brought Ocasio-Cortez’s candidacy to the attention of Americans nationwide: “Women like me aren’t supposed to run for office,” she says at the beginning of the ad, which knocks Crowley for, among other things, living outside his district and sending his children to schools in Virginia.
Crowley, a 56-year-old white man, also doesn’t look like a lot of his constituents: Half of the 14th district’s residents are immigrants, and 70 percent are people of color. Ocasio-Cortez grew up with two working-class parents in the Bronx. Her mother was born in Puerto Rico, and her father was from the South Bronx. The strategist told me the race illustrated not only a growing energy on the left, but also the importance of representatives being in tune with their district. “Being out of touch is never a good look,” the strategist said. “It brought down Cantor for the Republicans, and it claims a similarly situated Dem here.”
It’s important to note, though, that the dynamics at play in the 14th district were unique. New York is the only state with a split primary system, with its federal and state elections held three months apart. Turnout is always low for these primaries, especially in midterm years: On Tuesday, fewer than 28,000 votes were cast in the 14th district, which has more than 710,000 residents and 292,000 active voters. Of those, Ocasio-Cortez won nearly 16,000 to Crowley’s 11,800.
And it’s possible that many voters loyal to Crowley didn’t realize he was in trouble, and therefore didn’t turn out to vote. “It’s like a rogue wave: You don’t see it forming and by the time it hits you, it’s too late. That’s what this was,” said former New York Representative Steve Israel, who once served as the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and whose district also contained parts of Queens. However, Israel doesn’t believe the election portends bad news for Democratic incumbents nationwide. “If you’re an incumbent in an upcoming primary, what happened in Queens is going to raise your antenna,” he said. “But I do not think this sends a national signal.”