Rep. Ro Khanna wants to have it both ways.
The progressive freshman from California has partially pulled his endorsement of House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe Crowley (D-N.Y.) after being skewered by liberals on Twitter. In an attempt to tamp down the outrage, Khanna now says he’s “co-endorsing” both Crowley and the New York Democrat’s primary challenger, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
“I am equally inspired & dual endorsing her,” Khanna said on Twitter on Wednesday. “I explained why I support Joe. But I want to affirm Ocasio-Cortez’s bold progressive positions.”
Khanna in an interview blamed himself for the embarrassing flap, saying he didn’t do enough research about Crowley’s challenger before issuing a full-throated endorsement of the Queens party boss last week.
“I didn’t realize it was a significant race,” Khanna said Wednesday. “A lot of times people don’t have real challengers and I think she’s a formidable candidate.”
But switch prompted head scratching and snickers from some fellow Democratic colleagues. It is rare for a lawmaker to endorse a fellow colleague’s primary challenger, particularly after publicly backing the sitting member initially.
Khanna’s about-face also likely brought more attention to his decision to weigh in on the race than his initial endorsement ever would have.
As leader of the Democratic Party in the New York borough, Crowley has a strong political base in Queens and isn’t expected to lose the June 26 race. But Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year old Latina and first-time candidate who champions herself as a "Democratic socialist," has mobilized progressives behind her campaign.
Crowley, 56, was for years aligned with the centrist wing of the party, even serving as chairman of the pro-business New Democrat Coalition.
But Crowley has worked to beef up his progressive bona fides in recent years as chatter about his chances as a potential successor to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi has grown, endorsing a raft of liberal priorities including legalizing marijuana and Medicare for all.
Khanna downplayed any assertion that the switch was embarrassing for Crowley, who has been backed by other top progressive lawmakers in his reelection bid.
“I think if I had rescinded the endorsement it would’ve been [embarrassing],” Khanna told POLITICO. “I feel very good about this decision.”
A spokeswoman for Crowley’s campaign declined to comment.
Khanna said this issue is partly personal for him. Khanna hasn’t been afraid to buck the establishment in the past— encouraging challengers to take on Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) in her reelection bid this year. In his own primary challenge in 2016, Khanna knocked off longtime Rep. Mike Honda.
Khanna said he never received support from established Democrats in that race or in two previous unsuccessful campaigns against Democratic incumbents and he thought it was important to extend the courtesy to Ocasio-Cortez.
“I never had a single federal official ever validate me,” he said. “I think she’s gotten a lot of energy and I think she’s mobilizing a lot of people and I think she’s running a great campaign.”
Khanna continued to respond to criticism on Wednesday from progressives questioning why he didn’t pull his endorsement of Crowley completely. They said it doesn’t make sense to back two candidates in a race who are competing against each other.
But Ocasio-Cortez urged Khanna’s critics to lay off.
“To some it may not seem like much, but @RoKhanna endorsing our campaign challenging the House Dem leader is enormously consequential,” she tweeted. “He could have ignored our pushback. He didn’t. Let’s have his back.”