Two years after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez first upended Democratic politics, another progressive newcomer, former Bronx middle school teacher Jamaal Bowman, is looking to repeat the feat by ousting longtime New York Rep. Eliot Engel, the House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman.
The race heated up in the final stretch, as Engel, who hasn’t faced a serious challenger in years, received a surge of support from moderate Democrats, including Hillary Clinton and party leaders on Capitol Hill and benefited from a late splurge of outside spending. Bowman, a Justice Democrats recruit, has the backing of Ocasio-Cortez and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
New York delayed its primaries because of the coronavirus and offered voters the opportunity to cast their ballots by mail, which means the results in the 16th district and around the state might not be known for a week or more. But victory for Bowman would be a resounding rebuke to the Democratic Party establishment both in the state and Washington, D.C. – and reason for optimism among progressives disappointed after Sanders fell short in his second presidential bid earlier this year.
Engel did himself no favors over the past few months, making national headlines for a pair of missteps that played directly into Bowman’s argument that, after more than thirty years on the job, the co-dean of the state delegation had lost touch with his district.
The first came when it was revealed that Engel had spent the worst New York City’s coronavirus crisis at his home in Maryland, hours away from one of the hardest hit districts in the country. Engel, in an interview with CNN, reasoned that he was following doctor’s orders, saying his house outside Washington is larger than his apartment in the city, and so better accommodated to quarantining with his wife.
But the more damaging episode came in early June, when a live microphone caught Engel asking to speak at a news conference in the Bronx. After being told there wasn’t time, Engel pleaded his case.
“If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” he said – twice.
“My reaction was: ‘We know.’ That was my reaction,” Bowman told CNN when asked about the remark. “We know that if you didn’t have a primary, you wouldn’t care. That’s why we were critical of him prior to that moment for being absent during the pandemic, that’s why we’ve been critical of him for living in Maryland for 27 of the 31 years he’s been in office while his district has suffered.”
Engel has repeatedly dismissed the suggestion that his keeping a home in Maryland or being absent from the district earlier this year will hurt him on Tuesday. Instead, he points to his seniority on Capitol Hill and voting record.
“The voters aren’t stupid. They vote for me every two years because they know I care about them,” Engel told CNN. “I work hard for them, I produce for them, and I vote the way they would like for me to vote. And I’ve been very, very effective.”
Engel and Bowman are both supporters of “Medicare for All” and other big domestic progressive priorities, but Engel is among the most hawkish Democratic House members, having voted for the Iraq War and against the Iran nuclear deal, while routinely landing to the right of most of the caucus on issues related to Israel and the Palestinians.
The Democratic Majority for Israel has been the biggest outside spender in the race, ramping up its outlays over the last few weeks – its total as of June 22 having exceeded $1.5 million. That included an ad targeting Bowman over an old tax debt, which was roundly criticized before Engel’s campaign put out a statement asking that DMFI, which also spent heavily against Sanders during the presidential primary, “consider taking it down.”
Other groups, with names like Perise Practical and Avacy Initiatives, have also spent hundreds of thousands in support of Engel.
Bowman got a boost of his own, though to a lesser degree, from the late infusion of outside money into the race. A joint independent expenditure group formed by Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party ended up spending more than about $1.3 million on his behalf.
Justice Democrats, which also recruited and launched Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 campaign, narrowed their sights in 2020, focusing on fewer races and backing a more select group of insurgent candidates.
“It’s extremely rare for an incumbent Democrat in Congress to be unseated by more progressive candidate and for all the coverage the tea party received, and their influence in the Republican party, they were only able to unseat three House Republicans, maximum, in any given cycle,” Justice Democrats communications director Waleed Shahid told CNN. “So if Jamaal wins it will show that there is energy still for progressive leadership.”
CNN’s MJ Lee contributed to this report.