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It can only be described as a messy free-for-all — Tuesday’s New York Democratic primary. And the result could shed light on where the party is headed in ways party leaders didn’t expect.
It wasn’t meant to be. Democrats in Albany thought they had come up with a trick repeat on the House’s federal district map earlier this year, but they got too greedy in trying to draw battle lines that could reliably get them three more reliable liberals in Washington. Judges in April rejected the map as too clearly partisan. The result: a wildly different map and a delayed primary, one featuring two House titans battling each other for survival, a party insider tasked with protecting the House majority reassigned to a new district and a first-term lawmaker forced to relocate , to seek a second term. All the while millions out dollar trying to pick favorites.
And in the process is another one a reminder that not everyone agrees on what it means to be a Democrat these days.
Representatives Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney are mainstays of the Democratic establishment. Each chairs a powerful House committee, sits in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s inner circle and has deep ties to the New York machine. Still, the redistribution required every 10 years pushed the two into a confrontation that no one particularly wanted. And with Suraj Patel, a newcomer to politics, working on the generational change theme and gaining some traction, it is possible that both the chairs will retire.
In a sense, the tripartite clash is emblematic of the crisis of democratic identity. If Nadler prevails, he could be the only Jew in New York’s House delegation. Maloney, who breaks through gender barriers, relies on women to protect her, especially after Dobbs answer ending the federal right to abortion. And Patel makes it clear that the party’s best leaders are not necessarily white seventy-year-old insiders.
Nadler, at least on paper, appears to have an advantage. Both The New York times and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer threw their weight behind him. Limited research shows it forward. But Maloney is a fighter and is doing everything he can to keep the case going service. Both are aware that the last time a member of the Democratic leadership faced off against a young upstart — Joe Crowley against a bartender named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 — he lost in stunning upset.
It’s a similar open question for Congressman Sean Patrick Maloney chairman by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He supports the Democrats’ official agenda of holding on to an incumbent this cycle, even though he found himself among the more vulnerable seats in the new map. Instead of seeking another term in his current district, he chose a safer district — a smart move that spared the DCCC chief the need to justify party dollars to save his skin.
But in the process, he crowded into Rep. Mondair Jones’ turf in the Hudson Valley. Jones, in turn, moved to a new area that was less familiar to him. Now he fights with nine directions primary in Lower Manhattan and Brooklyn, one that could have cut across Jones’ rise as an openly gay black man who was cast on the same night as another fellow New Yorker who broke that barrier at the same time. (The competition also includes some unexpected ones intervention by Donald Trump.)
And despite all these musical chairs, Sean Patrick Maloney could still lose to state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi, unappealable progressive who works in the style of Ocasio-Cortez, herself an assassin. Biaggi enjoys the support of outside money raising her as a change agent from the younger generation inclusive from AOC loyalists, while Sean Patrick Maloney’s advantage is deep political knowledge dating back to his days as an adviser to Bill Clinton.
In these primary races and others in New York, Democrats are working on — or desperately trying to avoid — the degree identity they should influence who they choose to represent them. It’s arguable that they haven’t figured out how to settle into the post-Obama political landscape. But the specter of a second term with Donald Trump blown away the field quite effectively after Joe Biden’s I win in South Carolina, but didn’t hand him the nomination for Trump’s Most Viable Con.
The quick rapprochement around Biden spared the party a protracted identity battle in the midst of a pandemic-tinged nomination season. But that just kicks off that debate for a later date. And as it gets closer, Nancy Pelosi’s talents won’t rule the House Democrats much longer. A party which has so far shown incredible discipline may disintegrate into competing sects in the absence of such an effective disciplinarian. That’s why the New York primary may offer some telling clues about how the modern Democratic Party will shape up — and how the losing players will come to terms with the results.
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