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) KhannaMarkey fundraises ahead of Kennedy primary challenge The Hill's Campaign Report: De Blasio drops out | Warren gains support from black voters | Sanders retools campaign team | Warning signs for Tillis in NC Overnight Health Care — Presented by Partnership for America's Health Care Future — Pelosi unveils signature plan to lower drug prices | Trump says it's 'great to see' plan | Progressives pushing for changes 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 SandersOmar: Biden not the candidate to 'tackle a lot of the systematic challenges that we have' Seven takeaways from a busy Democratic presidential campaign weekend in Iowa Democrats go all out to court young voters for 2020 MORE (I-Vt.), who ran his own anti-establishment race in 2016 Democratic presidential primary against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDemocrats go all out to court young voters for 2020 Pelosi: Whistleblower complaint 'must be addressed immediately' Election meddling has become the new normal of US diplomacy 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 WarrenUnited Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Omar: Biden not the candidate to 'tackle a lot of the systematic challenges that we have' Seven takeaways from a busy Democratic presidential campaign weekend in Iowa MORE (D-Mass.), who a few years ago was an unknown professor criticizing corruption in Washington, to freshman Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisSeven takeaways from a busy Democratic presidential campaign weekend in Iowa Fracking ban could have unintended consequence of boosting coal Poll: Voters back Medicare expansion, keeping private insurance 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 KerryKerry urges China and India to step up on climate change in WaPo op-ed Sunday shows - Trump's Ukraine call, Iran dominate Kerry: 'One way or the other' Iran was responsible for Saudi attack MORE (D-Mass.), noted that Democrats have often nominated some kind of outsider, from Jimmy Carter to Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonTrump sues to block NY prosecutors' subpoena for his tax returns Most voters say there is too much turnover in Trump administration RNC spokeswoman on 2020 GOP primary cancellations: 'This is not abnormal' MORE to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaKrystal Ball tears into 'Never Trump' Republicans Sanders campaign announces it contacted over 1 million Iowa voters Iowa Steak Fry to draw record crowds for Democrats 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 PelosiRomney: Trump asking Ukraine to investigate political rival 'would be troubling in the extreme' Pelosi: Whistleblower complaint 'must be addressed immediately' Democrats must embrace Israel and denounce anti-Semitism in the party 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 BookerSeven takeaways from a busy Democratic presidential campaign weekend in Iowa Iowa GOP swipes at 2020 Democrats' meat positions as candidates attend annual Steak Fry Booker aide sounds alarm about campaign's funding MORE and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandNew Hampshire feels overlooked in Democratic presidential race Booker aide sounds alarm about campaign's funding O'Rourke gun confiscation talk alarms Democrats 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 BidenUnited Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' Omar: Biden not the candidate to 'tackle a lot of the systematic challenges that we have' 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's top adviser on Asia to serve as deputy national security adviser United Auto Workers strike against GM poised to head into eighth day Trump doubles down on call to investigate Biden after whistleblower complaint: 'That's the real story' 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.