Anti-establishment fervor grips Dems

The public debate for Democrats has centered around whether the party is drifting to the left.

But on the heels of Rep. Joseph Crowley’s (D-N.Y.) upset primary loss to 28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the real battle is looking more like a fight between establishment and anti-establishment forces.  

“I think it’s less about left-right and more about new-old,” said Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaDems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments Congress must use upcoming defense bills to guard against a confrontation with Iran MORE (D-Calif.), who defeated a Democratic incumbent to win his seat in Congress in 2016. 

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Khanna was a player in the Crowley battle with Ocasio-Cortez. He backed Ocasio-Cortez, though in a move that’s won him some criticism, he also endorsed Crowley.

“To me, it's about anti-establishment, it’s about let’s have new voices in there, it’s about a sense of a failed generation of congressional leadership. I think that’s really the sentiment,” he said.

Ocasio-Cortez wasn’t the only anti-establishment winner on Tuesday night.

In Maryland, former NAACP President Ben Jealous defeated Prince George County Executive Rushern Baker, who was backed by the state’s political establishment. 

Both Jealous and Ocasio-Cortez were supported by Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersConfused by polls? Watch early primary states — not national numbers Confused by polls? Watch early primary states — not national numbers Biden leads in early voting states, followed by Warren, Sanders: poll MORE (I-Vt.), who ran his own anti-establishment race in 2016 Democratic presidential primary against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate Democrats' 2020 Achilles's heel: The Senate House Intel Republican: 'Foolish' not to take info on opponent from foreign ally MORE. While Sanders and his allies have suffered some losses in primaries this year, the victories on Tuesday night were huge for his movement.

They might also give some signals about how the 2020 race for the Democratic nomination will proceed.

Several possible candidates could look to grab the anti-establishment mantle, from Sanders to Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenBiden calls for equal pay for US women's soccer team Biden calls for equal pay for US women's soccer team Trump steadfast in denials as support for impeachment grows MORE (D-Mass.), who a few years ago was an unknown professor criticizing corruption in Washington, to freshman Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisBiden calls for equal pay for US women's soccer team Biden calls for equal pay for US women's soccer team Confused by polls? Watch early primary states — not national numbers MORE, a relative upstart from California.

“If I was a Democrat running for president in 2020, I would take good notes on what happened in New York and Maryland,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. “People are sick and tired of what’s happening in Washington. They want change. They want something entirely different.” 

David Wade, a Democratic strategist who served as a top aide to former Sen. John KerryJohn Forbes KerryOcasio-Cortez and Cruz's dialogue shows common ground isn't just for moderates 'Landslide' for Biden? A look at 40 years of inaccurate presidential polls Trump campaign considering making a play for blue state Oregon: report MORE (D-Mass.), noted that Democrats have often nominated some kind of outsider, from Jimmy Carter to Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonCampaign dads fit fatherhood between presidential speeches Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments Dems eye repeal of Justice rule barring presidential indictments MORE to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaCampaign dads fit fatherhood between presidential speeches Trump: Obama 'had to know' of 'setup' to block presidential bid 2020 Democrats mark 7th anniversary of DACA MORE.

“From Kennedy to Carter to Clinton '92 all the way through Obama, we tend to choose the most different, most outside force in the field,” said Wade.

While Hillary Clinton was the face of the establishment in many ways, she also would have become the first female president if she had been elected.

Wade said she represented a “historic choice even if Sanders was the more anti-establishment candidate.”

And putting aside 2016, Wade said the “demand for someone who can shake up Washington is stronger today than ever.” 

Democratic strategist Basil Smikle, however, said the party’s current affinity for anti-establishment candidates is more about the push for new ideas. 

“There’s a huge appetite for a candidate that pushes big, aspirational ideas and not someone preoccupied with shaping public policy within the constraints of their office,” said Smikle, who worked for Clinton. “Radical change over incrementalism.” 

The demand for new faces is most pronounced in the House, where Ocasio-Cortez won a victory over a 10-term incumbent in Crowley. The top three leaders in the House have held their leadership positions for more than a decade, frustrating up and coming lawmakers.

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOcasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown MORE (D-Calif.) joked this week that she’s a liberal and a woman.

“What’s your problem? Two out of three ain’t bad,” the 78-year-old leader said.

Smikel said he doesn’t think the tensions are about age. In fact, he thinks some older candidates would do well mimicking Ocasio-Cortez’s closing advertisement focused on helping the working-class voters of her district.

“There are even older, well-known potential candidates who could’ve spoken about 80 percent of Ocasio-Cortez’s closing ad, and I don’t just mean Bernie,” he said. 

Pelosi pushed back Wednesday against the notion that the party is wrestling with an overall identity crisis. 

“I don’t accept any characterization of our party presented by the Republicans,” Pelosi said. “Our party is a big tent. Each of our members is elected to be an independent representative of their district. The beauty is in the mix.” 

Pelosi said she and other party leaders are “excited about another generation of people coming into the Congress.” 

Republicans — seizing what they see as an opportunity — predict the jolt in direction will be too much for Democrats.

“As the anti-establishment backlash to 2016 unfolds, the race to the left has been steady but incremental among potential 2020ers like Cory BookerCory Anthony BookerFox News poll shows Trump trailing Biden, Sanders, other Democrats Fox News poll shows Trump trailing Biden, Sanders, other Democrats Poll: Biden leads, Warren surges in South Carolina MORE and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandBiden calls for equal pay for US women's soccer team Biden calls for equal pay for US women's soccer team Trump steadfast in denials as support for impeachment grows MORE,” said Alexandra Smith, the executive director of America Rising. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez proudly and unabashedly rips that band-aid off. If Democratic donors were nervous about Elizabeth Warren, this potential new direction should terrify them.”  

There are also some signs that for all the talk about an anti-establishment insurgency, the Democratic establishment is alive and well.

Former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden calls for equal pay for US women's soccer team Biden calls for equal pay for US women's soccer team Yang: Standing next to Biden on debate stage would help boost name recognition MORE is ahead in most 2020 polls, though that may reflect his strong name recognition.

Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University, said that means there are Democrats who are okay with establishment candidates. 

“Some Democrats think the party is just fine and a well-orchestrated ... others see the lesson of 2016 as being that there is something fundamentally wrong with the party,” Zelizer said. “This wing wants youth, energy, and progressive ideas injected into the party through exciting candidates. 

“They want someone very different than Trump and are much more concerned with ideas and policies that the Trumpinistas, but the common impetus is that they feel the party system is old and broken,” he continued. 

Democratic Pollster Celinda Lake added that 2020 will be complicated because “it will be balanced by the desire for new faces and the desire to beat Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE period. But one thing is clear, nobody is going to be nominated on the Democratic side who is not for gun control, marriage equality, who doesn’t want to regulate Wall Street.”

Khanna said that the new crop of Democrats was inevitable.

“The question is, is that in two years or four years,” he said, adding, “There is hunger for generational change.”

Melanie Zanona contributed.