Crowley loss warns of volatile voters

Crowley loss warns of volatile voters
© Greg Nash

There is a risk, in assessing a titanic political upset, of sounding eulogistic. That is especially true with Congressman Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) CrowleyFor Capuano in Massachusetts, demography was destiny Carper fends off progressive challenger in Delaware primary Election Countdown: Fallout from Massachusetts stunner | In Delaware, Carper looks to avoid next progressive upset | Dem 2020 primary already in full swing | How a Dem ex-governor hopes to take red-state Tennessee | GOP challengers hit Dems over tax votes MORE (D-N.Y.), a vibrant and gregarious figure in the House who suffered defeat in last night’s Democratic primary but who has a flourishing future.

So forgive me if I put the personal ahead of the political. Joe was elected to the House in 1998. I joined him in 2000. I learned early that some of my colleagues were politically savvy, and some were wonkish. Some exuded personality, and some showed ambition. Some were strong fundraisers, and some were passionate about their constituents.

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Joe is a rare blend of all these things, wrapped in a bearish frame and projected in a booming laugh. I saw Joe cry only twice. When planes hit the World Trade Center on 9/11, the New York delegation bonded. But Joe’s bond was special. He’d lost a cousin in the rubble, and I’ll always remember his House floor speech. It was tearful but fearless.

The other time was when he lost his first leadership race, for vice chair of the Democratic Caucus in 2006. I was on his whip team. We’d meet in the mornings and we’d count commitments. We soon learned that you can’t just count on commitments. Still, Joe fought to the very end and emerged with the respect of people who voted for him, and voted against.

As the numbers came in last night, the Twitter world ignited, texts between members and former members of Congress exploded, and the political punditry instantly diagnosed, as it’s prone to do, “What happened?” The analysis included a.) Democrats are in trouble, b.) Republicans are in trouble, c.) it’s not a blue wave but a far-left wave that’s coming in November, d.) it’s none of the above, and e.) it’s all of the above.

There is no doubt that this outcome is dramatic, but it doesn’t portend much. When former Majority Leader Eric CantorEric Ivan CantorFake political signs target Democrat in Virginia Hillicon Valley: GOP leader wants Twitter CEO to testify on bias claims | Sinclair beefs up lobbying during merger fight | Facebook users experience brief outage | South Korea eyes new taxes on tech Sinclair hired GOP lobbyists after FCC cracked down on proposed Tribune merger MORE (R-Va.) lost his primary in June 2014, it seemed to many to be a sure sign that Republicans would lose the House that fall. But five months later, they expanded their majority in the midterm elections. What Cantor’s loss showed was massive grassroots energy for Republicans. Now the energy is with Democrats.

Every election has its own dynamic. This one did as well. I suspect the challenge in this one belongs in the category of “sometimes you don’t see it coming.” That is the most dangerous threat. It’s like a rogue wave that you don’t see forming until it’s too late. It’s not alarming enough to sound the alarms, to call for help. It just overcomes you.

You need certain climactic conditions for that political wave to form, starting with low turnout. No turnout is lower than a primary election in a midterm election where no one believes a popular incumbent is in trouble, in a state like New York that bifurcates its primaries with congressional in June, and everyone else in September.

In those conditions, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez ran a perfect race in the Democratic primary, steadily mobilizing her base but not steadily frightening her opponents to mobilize against her. Add to that an electorate around the country, and on both sides of the political aisle, that is in various stages of volatility, fatigue, anger and uncertainty.

Those who say Crowley took the race for granted overlook the fact that he reportedly spent more than $1 million. That is not a sign of complacency on his part. It’s a sign that voters may have taken him for granted. There are no macro trends to be parsed, except one: If you’re an incumbent in a primary, keep scanning for the first frothing of that distant wave.

As for Joe, he’s happiest playing his guitar for the Democratic caucus, belting out lyrics instead of soundbytes. He’s the consummate “happy warrior.” There are battles to be fought, and he will take them on. Maybe not as Chairman Crowley or Congressman Crowley, but just as he is: Joe.

Steve IsraelSteven (Steve) J. IsraelPolarization offers false choices on support for Israel Donald Trump may stun America with shocking November surprise The year the party machines broke MORE represented New York in Congress for 16 years. He served as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is the author of the new novel “Big Guns,” a satire of the gun lobby. You can follow him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.