House Foreign Affairs Chairman Eliot Engel, a 16-term veteran who was vanquished in his New York primary by a progressive insurgent, bluntly warned his fellow Democrats against backing challengers against sitting lawmakers from the same party.
“I think that it’s a very dangerous thing for party unity if members are going to start putting up primary challenges to other members in the same caucus,” Engel, 73, who has served in the House for nearly 32 years, told CNN on Monday. “I think it’s not something that should be done.”
Engel added: “But you know everyone does what they want to do, and I’m willing to abide by the wishes of the people.”
Engel’s comments came after he was trounced in the June primary by Jamaal Bowman, a 44-year-old middle-school principal who won the backing of several high-profile Democrats in his primary, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Katie Porter of California and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts – as well as Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders, an independent of Vermont.
“Who is going to (be able to serve) in a caucus if there are people sitting right in there who want to get you defeated?” Engel said in the Capitol. “I would be reluctant and other people would be reluctant to say what they feel. I just think it’s not something I would do.”
In his primary campaign, Engel was attacked by his critics for losing touch with the district he’s represented since 1989. Asked about the criticism, Engel pushed back.
“My opponent said I wasn’t in the district – but that was really because he wasn’t in the district,” Engel said. “I’m in the district, and I’m there every day doing constituent work and other things.”
The attacks, he said, “were very inaccurate, but that’s politics. And I accept it, I respect” the outcome.
In 1988, Engel himself was victorious in a Democratic primary against an incumbent congressman, Mario Biaggi, who had been convicted on racketeering charges a month before the primary.
While Engel said on Monday he’s grateful for his time in office and respects the wishes of voters, the veteran New Yorker also said “it’s hard to say” why he lost. “I think that there was a lot of turmoil” in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death, an unarmed Black man at the hands of Minneapolis police. “I think that it kind of reflected how people voted.”
Bowman, an African-American candidate who railed against racial injustice and demanded major changes to the criminal justice system, was buoyed by a wave of support from liberal activists, overcoming the party’s establishment wing, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who backed Engel.
Engel said he wasn’t “too surprised” by the 15-point loss he suffered. “I could sense it in the last couple of days, but again, I respect it, and I’ve got plenty of things to do in my life.”
Asked what’s next for him when his term expires in January, Engel said: “I don’t know; I’ll see. People have already been calling, and I’m not rushing into anything.”
This story has been updated.
CNN’s Dominic Torres contributed to this report.