Bowman’s victory is an extraordinary rebuke to the Democratic Party establishment both in New York and on Capitol Hill — and reason for new optimism among progressives in the wake of Sens. Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s failed presidential primary bids.
The final call of the race comes more than three weeks after the June 23 primary and a drawn-out process in which the state has struggled to deliver timely results amid an influx of absentee ballots. New York dramatically expanded its mail-in voting option in response to the coronavirus, but the long delay in counting will add to national Democrats’ anxiety over the potential for similar delays, especially in presidential swing states like Pennsylvania, in the event of a close race in November.
The race turned feisty in the final stretch, as Engel, who hasn’t faced a serious challenger in years, was reinforced by a late surge of outside spending. But Bowman, who like Ocasio-Cortez was recruited to run by Justice Democrats, got a boost of his own from small-dollar donors and spending by an outside group formed by Justice Democrats and the progressive Working Families Party.
Bowman is also at the forefront of a growing wave of Black progressive leaders, like fellow New Yorker Mondaire Jones in the open 17th District, who outperformed early expectations and appears poised to grow the left’s influence in Washington, DC. Bowman told CNN late last month that low turnout numbers in past primaries gave him confidence, from early on in the campaign, that Engel was beatable.
“Initially, we weren’t trying to take his base of votes from him. It was about engaging with the people who, quite frankly, felt ignored by him for 31 years. And guess what? That was a lot of people,” Bowman said. “Our canvassing operations and our focus was to knock on doors in Co-op City, Baychester, Yonkers, Mount Vernon and parts of New Rochelle, but also canvass Riverdale and Scarsdale and places that, quote-unquote, stereotypically would be Engel’s backyard.”
New York delayed its primaries until June 23 because of the coronavirus and offered voters the opportunity to cast their ballots by mail, leading many to believe the contest wouldn’t be decided for at least a few weeks. Bowman jumped out to a commanding lead after a long day of voting in the Bronx and Westchester and held on to his advantage throughout the extended count.
“What we’re witness is a harvesting of a lot of the deliberate work of aligning movements with vehicles like the Working Families Party and surfacing leaders like Jamaal or (Wisconsin Lt. Gov.) Mandela Barnes or (Philadelphia City Council member) Kendra Brooks,” said WFP national director Maurice Mitchell. “Most of these folks grew up in some of the poorest zip codes in our country and carry the same scars that many people in their district carry around the lack of investment in them.”
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 of 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.
“If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” he said — twice.
Engel has repeatedly dismissed the suggestion that his keeping a home in Maryland or being absent from the district earlier this year would hurt him. Instead, he pointed 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 on the weekend before the primary. “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.”
But the signs that Bowman had successfully made his case, and the one against Engel, popped up early after polls closed last month.
During a stop in Yonkers, at a polling site with long lines, campaign manager Luke Hayes pulled out his phone to show Bowman the first batch of results, which showed the challenger with a big lead.
“When I looked at the bar graph, I’m was like, ‘Wait a minute, can I see that again?’ I asked him to see it like three or four times, because I didn’t believe what I was seeing, I guess, the first two times,” Bowman recalled. “But I still couldn’t get too excited because that was only the Bronx reporting at that moment.”
When Bowman saw his lead holding after Westchester numbers began to come in, he figured it would be “very, very difficult (for Engel) to make up this deficit with mail-in ballots.”
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.
Bowman’s victory is another blow for the traditional pro-Israel lobby, which has close ties to Engel and invested heavily in trying to keep him in Congress.
The Democratic Majority for Israel led the way, ramping up its outlays over the last few weeks before polls closed — its total 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 against Sanders during the presidential primary, “consider taking it down.”
Other groups, with murky names like Perise Practical and Avacy Initiatives, also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars backing Engel.
Bowman got a boost of his own, though to a lesser degree, from the late infusion of outside money into the race. The Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party outside group ended up spending about $1.3 million on his behalf.
Justice Democrats narrowed their sights in 2020, focusing on fewer races and backing a more select group of insurgent candidates. Before the New York primaries, one other of the group’s endorsed candidates had succeeded in defeating an incumbent, Rep. Dan Lipinski of Illinois, who opposes abortion rights.
“It’s extremely rare for an incumbent Democrat in Congress to be unseated by a 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 before primary day. “So if Jamaal wins it will show that there is energy still for progressive leadership.”