Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) speaks during a news conference discussing Russian sanctions on Capitol Hill February 15, 2017 in Washington, DC.
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01:04 - Source: CNN
CNN  — 

Democratic incumbents and party establishment favorites are facing a series of progressive primary challenges on Tuesday, as voters in New York and Kentucky go to the polls – or face absentee ballot deadlines – amid continued concerns over coronavirus and a reckoning on race that has thrown at least one high-profile contest into flux.

In New York, newcomers Jamaal Bowman and Mondaire Jones are campaigning to replace the state’s two longest serving House members. Bowman is running to unseat Rep. Eliot Engel and Jones entered the race before Rep. Nita Lowey announced her retirement last year. They join Adem Bunkeddeko and Suraj Patel, who are both trying – again – to defeat longtime incumbent Reps. Yvette Clark and Carolyn Maloney, respectively, in a pair of New York City districts.

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Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, is for the first time facing a challenge of her own – from Michelle Caruso-Cabrera. The former CNBC correspondent has raised about $2 million, only about one-fifth as much as Ocasio-Cortez, but enough to mount a legitimate campaign.

Down in Kentucky, Democratic state Rep. Charles Booker could provide the biggest shock of the entire primary season as he squares off with Amy McGrath, the once-heavily favored former fighter pilot who has taken in tens of millions of dollars from Democrats around the country in anticipation of a November showdown with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. First, though, she has to contend with Booker, a young Black lawmaker backed by Ocasio-Cortez and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who raised his profile by emerging on the frontline of anti-racist protests in Louisville.

But the biggest wild card is, once again, the practicalities of running an election amid a pandemic. Both states are encouraging absentee voting, which means that the results of the primaries are unlikely to be clear by the end of the night, or in any number of days or weeks to come.

Will the House Foreign Affairs Chairman be toppled?

Progressives around the country are doing in New York’s 16th Congressional District what they could not during the presidential primary: rallying around one of their own.

Jamaal Bowman, a 44-year-old Black former Bronx middle school principal, is running to unseat incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel, the co-dean of the state delegation, in a district that includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester. Bowman was recruited to run by Justice Democrats, the same group that launched Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign, and enters primary day with the support of national lefty luminaries Sanders and Warren, Ocasio-Cortez, and Rep. Ayanna Pressley. He is also backed by popular local officials, like state Sens. Alessandra Biaggi and Jessica Ramos.

But Bowman’s slow and steady rise has been met with a late show of force from the party establishment, which is closing ranks in support of Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, after some hedging, is on board now, as is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton, and New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, among others.

The Democratic Majority for Israel, an outside group that ran ads against Sanders during the presidential primary, has by itself spent more than $1.1 million backing Engel and bashing Bowman. One of the TV spots, which attacked Bowman over an old tax debt, was denounced by the Bowman campaign and some Democrats not involved in the race, like former Obama administration official Ben Rhodes, who called it “total garbage” and said it was “embarrassing for any Democrat to want support like this.”

Bowman has outside support too – from a joint independent expenditure group formed by Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party, which has also spent more than $1 million.

If Bowman can win this race, which is expected to be close, with the wealthier parts of the district – mostly in Westchester – the hardest to predict, he will immediately provide reinforcement for the “squad” and give confidence to New York progressives eying Schumer, who’s up for reelection in two years.

If Engel loses it, he will look back on two headline-grabbing gaffes, both of them playing tidily into Bowman’s argument that he has lost touch with the district.

The first came when it was revealed that he had spent the bulk of New York’s coronavirus crisis at his home in Maryland, hours away from one of the hardest hit districts in the country.

The next took place at the beginning of June, when Engel was caught on a live microphone asking to speak at a news conference in the Bronx. When he was told by the borough president there wasn’t time, Engel pleaded his case.

“If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” Engel said – twice.

Amy McGrath is under pressure in Kentucky

Democratic Senate candidate Amy McGrath is a fundraising phenomenon. But she enters primary day with an unexpected challenge for the party’s nomination.

Long viewed as a shoo-in to progress to a showdown with Republican Senate Majority Mitch McConnell in November, McGrath has increasingly turned her attention to progressive primary rival Charles Booker, a Kentucky state representative gaining momentum – and national attention – in the aftermath of the police killings of George Floyd in Minnesota and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky.

Booker is still considered an underdog in the race. McGrath has raised over $40 million, an astonishing figure, and commands the support of the Senate Democratic campaign arm, a number of labor unions and others who are drawn to her background as a former fighter pilot who flew in combat for the Marines Corps. Her supporters note that her moderate views are more in alignment with Kentucky’s traditional electorate than Booker’s.

Booker is the youngest Black Kentucky lawmaker at 35 years old, comes from one of the state’s poorest zip codes and has argued that his message is uniquely suited to the moment. His role in the protests that followed Taylor’s killing, and McGrath’s absence early on from anti-racism rallies in Kentucky, has contributed to the notion that the primary could be closer than anyone expected even a month ago.

Booker’s campaign has also attracted a late groundswell of support – and with it, small dollar donations – from progressives across the country, including endorsements from figures like Sanders and Warren, who initially signaled support for McGrath, and Ocasio-Cortez.

The state hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since the reelection of Wendell Ford in 1992. It gave Trump a 30-point victory in 2016. Neither Democratic candidate would be favored to beat McConnell, the longest-serving Kentucky senator.

But McGrath’s supporters believe that she would have a better shot. Booker’s support of the Green New Deal (he often refers to it as the “Kentucky New Deal”), universal basic income and “Medicare for All,” is viewed by many moderate Democratic figures as a liability in a general election in Kentucky.

McGrath in turn has spent her campaign zeroed-in on McConnell, trying to portray him as a Washington swamp monster who cares more about Wall Street and special interests than his own constituents.

“I’m focused on the message that I have had from the very beginning,” McGrath told CNN last week, “which from day one is: we need somebody to take on Sen. Mitch McConnell, who’s just going to do what’s right for Kentucky and for our country.”

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The progressive insurgents aren’t sneaking up on anyone this year.

House Democrats are paying attention and, in some cases, more willing to take a heavy hand in defending their incumbents. After Ohio Rep. Joyce Beatty steamrolled her challenger, Morgan Harper, in late April, Rep. Hakeem Jeffries of New York laid down a marker.

“How many elections does the social media mob have to lose,” he tweeted, “before concluding that coalition building beats online vitriol every time?”

Jeffries was leaning into a familiar characterization of the Democratic left’s most vocal supporters, one that was used – sometimes fairly, sometimes not – against Sanders during the presidential primary.

The campaigns in New York and Kentucky have been feisty, especially down the stretch, but progressive candidates and their supporters are benefiting from a reframing of American politics that began after the coronavirus arrived – highlighting a rash of systemic inequities in its wake – and sped up as anti-racist protests across the country began to gain broad popular support.

The heightened stakes and increased uncertainty do not appear to have scared off voters previously considering a change.

“Crises can be incumbent protection plans because people want security in a moment where it feels like everything’s erupting,” Sochie Nnaemeka, the Working Families Party’s New York state director, said last week. “But crises can also be a moment of tremendous possibility and potential.”

What’s certain is that Ocasio-Cortez and progressives in Congress need more votes if they want to have the same influence as inside the Democratic caucus as moderate and centrist members, who are less obsessively scrutinized, but still carry the balance of power.

There is also the question, never quite answered by Sanders during his presidential campaign, of how the left can win over Black voters – across generational lines – and create a more reliable base of support.

“There was all this talk about ‘Can progressives, can Bernie or Warren build the Obama coalition, can they appeal to people of color?’ (this year),” said Justice Democrats communications director Waleed Shahid. “And I think Jamaal’s race will hopefully show that that frame was only relevant for a particular set of circumstances, in the presidential election, and it’s not a hard truth about American politics forever.”

The contests in 2020 reflect an acknowledgment of one emerging truth: a more diverse base requires a more diverse slate of candidates, including on the ideological front. Bowman, though an enthusiastic supporter of “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, isn’t a democratic socialist. He is taking on the Democratic establishment, but his messaging, though critical, is less focused on condemning it as a whole.

In the 17th Congressional District, Mondaire Jones, who served in the Obama administration and could now become the first out gay, Black member of Congress, cited Sen. Cory Booker and Jeffries as two of the few federal lawmakers “talking forcefully about the need for racial justice and equity in this country.”

Jones entered the primary as a challenger to longtime incumbent Rep. Nita Lowey, who ultimately decided to retire before the race heated up. Endorsed by both Sanders and Warren, Jones told CNN this month that their defeats in the presidential primary underscored the need to invest in down-ballot races.

“It is so important that the movement continues, that we continue to build a bench of progressives who can then run for other things in the future,” Jones told CNN this month, pointing to state legislative and congressional contest like his own. “If you’re dissatisfied with Joe Biden as your nominee, you can at least be working to elect progressives to Congress.”

Could a Trump-friendly Democrat win in New York?

He is anti-abortion, opposes same-sex marriage, has a history of making homophobic remarks and is considering a vote for Trump in November.

He’s Rev. Rubén Díaz Sr. and, on Tuesday, he could become the Democratic Party’s congressional nominee in the country’s bluest district.

The cowboy hat-wearing 77-year-old New York City Councilman, a Pentecostal minister, boasts a number of advantages in the race, including the same name as his son, Bronx borough president Rubén Díaz Jr. and a proven base of support, particularly among senior citizens, ministers through his New York Hispanic Clergy Organization and some in the taxi industry.

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Díaz is known for his constituent services, but some of his recent events have raised eyebrows – and even led to a lawsuit. Filed by Bronx United, a political action committee opposing him, the complaint claims that Díaz violated election law by giving away food, donated by Fresh Direct to the city’s borough presidents, in locations outside his council seat’s borders, but inside the 15th Congressional District – effectively using the events to bolster his campaign.

Díaz benefits from running in a field of a dozen Democrats attempting to replace the retiring, 30-year veteran Rep. Jose Serrano. The other candidates include Councilman Ritchie Torres, Councilman Ydanis Rodriguez, New York State Assembly Member Michael Blake, former New York City Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and Samelys López, a community organizer.

Each has a base of support, but none have left the race even as it became increasingly clear that the anti-Díaz vote is in danger of splintering.

Torres, the first out gay person to hold elected office in the borough, has raised over $1.3 million in the race, far more than anyone else in the field, and is expected to be Diaz’s biggest competition in the race.

Paul Lipson, a New York Democratic strategist and former top aide to Serrano, told CNN that “the most decisive factor” might be the age of the electorate, and whether senior citizens who make up the base of Díaz’s support will feel comfortable going to the polls during the pandemic.

In a district that is two-thirds Latino and nearly 30% Black, with the largest concentration of Puerto Ricans in the state, race has also become a factor. The political arm of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus is backing Torres, who is both Black and Puerto Rican, while the Congressional Black Caucus is behind Blake, a vice chair of the Democratic National Committee who also has the support of two local branches of the powerful Service Employees International Union.

The race will also test whether the democratic socialist movement that elected Ocasio-Cortez to an adjacent, richer New York district two years ago can also send López to Washington. She is endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders and other progressive leaders.

The coronavirus could make for a messy election night – and week

Both New York and Kentucky delayed their primaries amid the coronavirus pandemic and allowed all voters to request absentee ballots ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

That means there is good chance that results in some of the mostly hotly contested races won’t be known on Tuesday night or, because ballots postmarked by then will all be counted, for days or perhaps longer.

In Kentucky, though, there are concerns emerging over the drastic reduction of in-person voting locations, which has been cut from 3,700 to only 200 across the commonwealth. In its two most populous counties, Jefferson and Fayette – the homes of Louisville and Lexington – there will be just one apiece, a decision that had led to claims of voter suppression.

The delay in New York, which typically sees few ballots cast by mail, could stretch much longer. The state, in following with its election security measures, will not begin its count of those votes for a week.

Confusion of a different flavor is on the menu in New York’s 27th Congressional District, which will elect a new representative following the departure of Republican Chris Collins, who pleaded guilty last year to conspiracy to commit securities fraud and making false statements.

The district on Tuesday will hold both its primary and a special election to fill Collins’ seat, with Republican state Sen. Chris Jacobs, the Trump endorsee, expected to win both the seat and a chance to run for a full term in the fall against Democrat Nate McMurray.

But there are also scenarios in which he could face a split decision, either denying him the title of incumbent come November, or relegating him to lame duck status upon arrival for what would be a short stay in Congress.

CNN’s Dan Merica and Eric Bradner contributed to this report.