Democrats’ Identity Crisis Shows Up in New York Primary

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It can only be described as a chaotic free-for-all—the Democratic primary in New York on Tuesday. And the result could shed light on where the party is headed in ways party leaders never expected.

It shouldn’t be like this. Democrats in Albany thought they had accomplished a clever remap of federal House districts earlier this year, but they’ve been so greedy in trying to contour battlelines that they can reliably enter three more reliable liberals in Washington. Judges in April rejected the map as too clearly partisan. The result: a very different map and a delayed primary, one featuring two House titans fighting each other for survival, a party insider tasked with protecting a House majority drawn in a new district , and a first-term lawmaker forced to switch to seek a second term. All the time, there are millions of dollars out there trying to pick favorites.

And, in the process, another reminder that not everyone agrees on what it means to be a Democrat these days.

Rep. Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney are mainstays of the Democratic Establishment. Each heads a powerful House committee, sits within Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s inner circle, and has deep ties to the New York machine. But redistricting required every 10 years has pushed the two into a confrontation they don’t like. And with Suraj Patel, a newcomer to politics, running on a theme of generational change and gaining some traction, it’s possible that both seats could be retired.

In a way, the three-way clash is symbolic of the Democratic identity crisis. If Nadler prevails, he could be the only Jewish member of New York’s House delegation. Maloney, breaking down gender barriers, is counting on women to come back to him, especially during the Dobbs decision ending a federal right to abortion. And Patel is a clear representation that the best party leaders are not necessarily white septuagenarian insiders.

Nadler, at least on paper, seems to have the edge. Both The New York Hours and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer threw their weight behind him. Limited polls show him ahead. But Maloney is a fighter and is pulling out all the stops to make the case for continued service. Both know that the last time a member of the Democratic leadership faced off against a young upstart—Joe Crowley vs. a bartender named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018—she lost in a stunning upset.

It’s a similarly open question for Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He supports the incumbent Democrats’ official program to remain in this cycle, despite being among the weaker seats on the new map. Instead of seeking another term in his current district, he opted for a safer district—a smart move that saved the DCCC chief from having to justify party dollars to save his skin.

But, in the process, he stomped on Rep.’s turf. Mondaire Jones in the Hudson Valley. Jones, in turn, moved to a new district he was less familiar with. He is now fighting through a nine-way primary in Lower Manhattan and Brookyln, one that could undercut Jones’ rise as an openly gay Black man who was elected on the same night as another New York colleague who simultaneously break through that barrier. (The race also featured some unexpected interventions from Donald Trump.)

And despite all those musical chairs, Sean Patrick Maloney may still lose to state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, an unapologetic progressive running in the style of Ocasio-Cortez, who is herself an office killer. Biaggi enjoyed the support of outside cash promoting him as a change agent of a younger generation, including from AOC loyalists, while Sean Patrick Maloney’s advantage was a deep well of political knowledge. since his time as Bill Clinton’s adviser.

In these primary races and others in New York, Democrats are exercising—or trying to avoid exercising—the breadth of identity that should influence who they choose to represent them. It’s a debate they haven’t figured out how to inhabit in a post-Obama political landscape. But the specter of a second term with Donald Trump swept the field pretty well after Joe Biden’s win in South Carolina, all but giving him the nomination as the most viable Trump thwacker.

The rapid consolidation around Biden spared the party a prolonged identity battle at the height of the pandemic-tinged nomination season. But that just kicked this debate to another day. And, as it turns out, Nancy Pelosi’s talents won’t be marshaling Democrats in the House much longer. A party which has so far shown admirable discipline may break into competing sects in the absence of such an effective disciplinarian. That’s why the New York primaries may offer some revealing clues about how the modern Democratic Party will shape itself—and how the losing players will make peace with the results.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.