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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) KhannaOvernight Defense — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — Senators seek US intel on journalist's disappearance | Army discharged over 500 immigrant recruits in one year | Watchdog knocks admiral over handling of sexual harassment case Lawmakers seeking intel on alleged Saudi plot against journalist Hillicon Valley: Seven Russians indicted for hacking | Apple, Amazon servers reportedly compromised by China | Pence calls on Google to end censored search engine work | Ireland investigates Facebook breach 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 SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Live coverage: Cruz faces O'Rourke in Texas debate showdown Saudi mystery drives wedge between Trump, GOP MORE (I-Vt.), who ran his own anti-establishment race in 2016 Democratic presidential primary against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonBudowsky: Closing message for Democrats Election Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach GOP mocks Clinton after minor vehicle collision outside Mendendez campaign event 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 WarrenPavlich: The left’s identity politics fall apart Graham: It would be 'like, terrible' if a DNA test found I was Iranian Iranian-American group calls on Graham to apologize for 'disgusting' DNA remark MORE (D-Mass.), who a few years ago was an unknown professor criticizing corruption in Washington, to freshman Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala Devi HarrisFox contributor: Warren's ancestors 'rounded up Cherokees for the Trail of Tears' The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Pollsters: White college-educated women to decide if Dems capture House Trump, Feinstein feud intensifies over appeals court nominees 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 decries ‘broken’ Washington Christine Blasey Ford has a credibility problem Mellman: Why Kavanaugh should withdraw MORE (D-Mass.), noted that Democrats have often nominated some kind of outsider, from Jimmy Carter to Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonCybersecurity for national defense: How many 'wake-up calls' does it take? Who's in control alters our opinion of how things are Obama adviser jabs Hillary Clinton over Monica Lewinsky comments MORE to Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaGOP group makes late play in Iowa seat once seen as lost Chance the Rapper works as Lyft driver to raise money for Chicago schools Americans are safer from terrorism, but new threats are arising 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 Patricia D'Alesandro PelosiElection Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach GOP strategist says Trump could want border wall fight to continue to excite base McConnell says deficits 'not a Republican problem' 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 BookerOn The Money: Deficit hits six-year high of 9 billion | Yellen says Trump attacks threaten Fed | Affordable housing set for spotlight in 2020 race Affordable housing set for spotlight of next presidential campaign Cruz takes dig at Beto O’Rourke, calls him ‘top 10‘ contender for Dems in 2020 MORE and Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandAffordable housing set for spotlight of next presidential campaign Overnight Defense — Presented by The Embassy of the United Arab Emirates — Senators seek US intel on journalist's disappearance | Army discharged over 500 immigrant recruits in one year | Watchdog knocks admiral over handling of sexual harassment case Pentagon watchdog knocks top admiral for handling of sexual harassment case 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 BidenJoseph (Joe) Robinette BidenElection Countdown: Dems outraise GOP in final stretch | 2018 midterms already most expensive in history | What to watch in second Cruz-O'Rourke debate | Trump raises 0M for reelection | Why Dems fear Avenatti's approach The Hill's Morning Report — Presented by the Coalition for Affordable Prescription Drugs — Pollsters: White college-educated women to decide if Dems capture House Election Countdown: Cruz, O'Rourke fight at pivotal point | Ryan hitting the trail for vulnerable Republicans | Poll shows Biden leading Dem 2020 field | Arizona Senate debate tonight 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 TrumpFive takeaways from Cruz, O'Rourke's debate showdown Arpaio files libel suit against New York Times IMF's Christine Lagarde delays trip to Middle East 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.