Rep. Jerry Nadler, who is running for re-election in a tight Democratic primary, greets a voter during a campaign stop outside a market in New York on June 28, 2022.
Jeenah Moon—The Washington Post via Getty Images
August 22, 2022 6:00 AM EDT

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It can only be described as a messy free-for-all—the Democratic primary in New York on Tuesday. And the outcome could shed light on where the party is headed in ways the party’s leaders had not anticipated.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Democrats in Albany thought they had devised a clever redo of the map of federal House districts earlier this year, but they got too greedy in trying to contour battlelines that could reliably net 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 titans of the House fighting each other for survival, a party insider tasked with protecting the House majority shuffled into a new district, and a first-term lawmaker forced to relocate in order to seek a second term. All the while, millions of outside dollars are trying to pick favorites.

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

Reps. Jerrold Nadler and Carolyn Maloney are mainstays of the Democratic Establishment. Each chairs a powerful committee in the House, sits inside Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s inner circle, and has deep ties to the New York machine. Yet the redistricting required every 10 years shoved the two into a confrontation that neither especially wanted. And with Suraj Patel, a newcomer to politics, running on a theme of generational change and gaining some traction, it’s possible that both chairs could wind up retired.

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In a way, the three-way clash is emblematic of the Democratic identity crisis. If Nadler prevails, he could be the lone Jewish member of New York’s House delegation. Maloney, who broke gender barriers aplenty, is counting on women to have her back, especially in the wake of the Dobbs decision ending a federal right to abortion. And Patel is a clear-eyed representation that the party’s best leaders aren’t necessarily white septuagenarian insiders.

Nadler, at least on paper, seems to have the advantage. Both The New York Times and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer threw their weight behind him. The limited polling shows him ahead. But Maloney is a fighter and is pulling out all the stops to make the case for continued service. Both are keenly aware that the last time a member of Democratic leadership faced a young upstart—Joe Crowley vs. a bartender named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018—he lost in a stunning upset.

It’s a similar open question for Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He is quarterbacking Democrats’ official incumbent-retention program this cycle, despite ending up as among the more vulnerable seats in the new map. Rather than seek another term in his current district, he opted for a safer district—a smart move that spared the DCCC chief from having to justify party dollars to save his hide.

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

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

In these primary races and others in New York, Democrats are working out—or trying desperately to avoid working out—the extent identity should influence who they pick to represent them. It’s a debate that they have not figured out how to settle in a post-Obama political landscape. But the specter of a second term with Donald Trump winnowed the field pretty efficiently after Joe Biden’s win in South Carolina, all but handing him the nomination as the most viable Trump thwacker.

The quick coalescing around Biden spared the party a protracted fight over identity at the height of a pandemic-tinged nominating season. But it only kicked this debate to a later date. And, as is increasingly proximate, the talents of Nancy Pelosi won’t be marshaling the Democrats in the House for too much longer. A party that so far has shown amazing discipline could fracture into competing sects in the absence of such an effective disciplinarian. Which is why the primaries in New York may offer some revealing clues as to how the modern Democratic Party will shape itself—and how the losing players will make peace with the results.

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