Rep. Eliot Engel’s bruising primary fight to fend off a challenger from the left in New York’s 16th Congressional District has become the latest front in the battle between establishment Democrats and the insurgent wing of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The contest next week has Democrats choosing sides, with some top party figures turning on Mr. Engel and the old guard he embodies.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a liberal champion and a contender for the vice presidential spot on the Democratic ticket, on Tuesday endorsed Mr. Engel’s challenger, former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman.
“He is exactly the kind of person we need in Congress fighting for big, structural change,” Ms. Warren said. “Whether it’s fighting for high-quality public schools, affordable housing or rooting out systemic racism, Jamaal Bowman will be a champion for working people in Washington.”
Mr. Bowman is looking to follow the trail blazed two years ago by Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, who toppled another longtime Democratic congressman, Joe Crowley, in a nearby district that includes parts of Queens and the Bronx.
Besides the Warren and Ocasio-Cortez endorsements, Mr. Bowman has won the backing of far-left icon Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and The New York Times.
“There is definitive change going on amongst Democrats,” said Hank Sheinkopf, a national Democratic strategist based in New York City. “This race is ultimately about a battle of what the [party] will be.”
Adam Green, co-founder of the far-left Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said Mr. Bowman’s powerful challenge to a senior member of the House Democratic Caucus was “sending shock waves” and making it “clear to the old guard they need to be in touch.”
“This sends a signal that progressives and voters at large want representation that’s accountable to them,” Mr. Green said.
Mr. Engel, who has served in Congress since 1989 and is chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, rallied support among power players on the Democratic leadership team, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, Minority Whip James E. Clyburn of South Carolina, Rep. Adam B. Schiff of California, chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries of New York.
He also collected an endorsement from 2016 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
However, Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer, a fellow New York Democrat, declined to make an endorsement in the primary race in the district, which includes parts of the Bronx and Westchester County.
Mr. Engel has touted his record and influence on Capitol Hill providing for the district, while liberals have leaned hard into portraying the longtime congressman as out of touch and distant.
His reelection bid is one of the top three races targeted by liberal activists. So far, the wing of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has a split record and is looking to New York’s primary to give it a win in two of the three races.
In Texas’ March 3 primary, eight-term incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar beat a challenge from the left by 26-year-old lawyer Jessica Cisneros.
But in Illinois’ March 17 primary, far-left challenger Marie Newman knocked out Rep. Daniel Lipinski, one of the few pro-life Democrats in Congress.
Mr. Bowman, who has said he supports the movement to defund police and Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, got a boost recently when Mr. Engel was caught on a hot mic pleading for a speaking slot at a racial justice rally in the Bronx. “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” he said.
The moment crystallized Mr. Engel’s image as an aging politician who is out of step with his constituents.
“It was a moment entirely consistent with the core theme of the campaign, which is that Eliot Engel has completely lost touch with his voters and is not accountable to them by the fact that he had happened in a Black Lives Matter rally,” Mr. Green said. “And he’s running against an amazing African-American leader who has publicly told this story of driving while black.”
Mr. Jeffries, who represents a Brooklyn district, defended Mr. Engel.
“Yes, he made an inartful statement, and his words were weaponized against him and taken out of context,” he told the New York Daily News. “But one inartful statement should not wipe out decades of authentic, committed, compassionate on-the-ground service to the community.”
Mr. Sheinkopf said the primary landscape has a lot of moving parts, including the potential for white New Yorkers to become swing voters in the district, which has urban and suburban areas.
There are questions about how Mr. Engel’s ardent support for Israel will play with voters, as the party’s liberal base increasingly sides with Palestinians in their conflict with the Jewish state.
Moreover, nationwide outrage over racial inequality and police brutality, a global pandemic coupled with historic economic hardship, and the necessity of absentee ballots add to the unpredictable nature of the election.
“There’s nothing normal about this election cycle,” Mr. Sheinkopf said. “We have entered into an era where the politics are determined by the activity of the moment.”
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Bowman declares victory over Rep. Eliot Engel in New York primary
Far-left Democrats hardened their grip on New York City politics in the primaries this week, while President Trump’s influence in the Republican Party was called into question after his preferred pick was blown out in a race for a vacant U.S. House seat in North Carolina. The wave of liberal activism that rose up against…
Far-left Democrats hardened their grip on New York City politics in the primaries this week, while President Trump’s influence in the Republican Party was called into question after his preferred pick was blown out in a race for a vacant U.S. House seat in North Carolina.
The wave of liberal activism that rose up against Mr. Trump when he took office has intensified since the killing of George Floyd and fueled a changing of the guard in New York’s 16th Congressional District.
That was where Jamaal Bowman declared victory Wednesday over Rep. Eliot Engel, who was first elected to Congress in 1988.
“I cannot wait to get to Washington and cause problems for the people maintaining the status quo,” said Mr. Bowman, a 44-year-old former school superintendent.
“I’m a Black man who was raised by a single mother in a housing project. That story doesn’t usually end in Congress,” he said. “But today, that 11-year-old boy who was beaten by police is about to be your next representative.
He claimed the win as tallies showed him with a significant double-digit lead over Mr. Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Four months out from the general election, the results from Tuesday’s primaries, some of which were still unknown, provided a snapshot of the national political landscape that, at least for a night, suggested that the November election will be a clash between an emboldened left wing and a weakened president.
“I think nationally he is in a perilous enough position right now that I definitely would see these as potential warning signs for Trump,” said John Miles Coleman, of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
In the North Carolina Republican primaries, Lynda Bennett, Mr. Trump’s hand-picked successor to Rep. Mark Meadows, who resigned to become White House chief of staff, was soundly defeated by 24-year-old Madison Cawthorn in the 11th Congressional District.
It marked the second contest of the primary cycle where Mr. Trump landed on the losing side.
Republican insiders dismissed the idea that the result was a black eye for Mr. Trump and said they expect Mr. Cawthorn to align himself with the president.
Mr. Cawthorn, who is paralyzed from the waist down as a result of a car crash, said Mr. Trump called to congratulate him.
“He was talking about how amazing a victory it was,” Mr. Cawthorn said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “He defined it as beautiful.”
Though the final results in New York will not be known until election officials count absentee ballots, liberals were expected to win open seats in the 15th and 17th congressional districts.
Meanwhile, Rep. Carolyn Maloney, New York Democrat and chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, was locked in a tough reelection battle against Suraj Patel, who also ran against her in 2018.
The results were clear in the 14th Congressional District, where far-left ringleader Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez crushed her primary rivals.
It all but guaranteed her a second term in the House and cleared the way for her to consider launching a primary challenge against Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer in 2022.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez shocked the political world in 2018 when she defeated Rep. Joseph Crowley, a top-ranking Democrat in the House.
“Wall Street CEOs, from Goldman Sachs to Blackstone, poured in millions to defeat our grassroots campaign tonight,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said in a post on Twitter. “But their money couldn’t buy a movement.”
The races reinforced New York City’s reputation as a hotbed of liberal activism that is demanding Democratic Party leaders move to the left and embrace sweeping systemic change in health care, policing and other areas.
“I do think if I was a longtime incumbent I would be on edge right now,” Mr. Coleman said.
Mr. Bowman’s race, meanwhile, became the most high-profile intraparty battle between the liberal and centrist forces.
He had the support of Ms. Ocasio-Cortez, as well as Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont and Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Mr. Engel had the backing of Mr. Schumer, as well as other party establishment figures including Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Hillary Clinton, the party’s 2016 presidential nominee.
Mr. Engel led the House Foreign Affairs Committee for seven years and has long been known for his pro-Israel positions. He also played an influential role in the House impeachment inquiry of President Trump.
He launched repeated oversight efforts of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the department’s foreign policy practices. Most recently, he investigated the circumstances surrounding the firing of State Department Inspector General Steve Linick.
Mr. Bowman, meanwhile, made foreign policy an issue against his challenger.
“You voted against President Obama’s Iran [nuclear] deal. You said on CNN just this past June that you didn’t want to tie Trump’s hands when it came to strikes on Iran,” Mr. Bowman tweeted to the incumbent in January, urging him to support a bill to cut funding for military action against Iran.
“You’ve belatedly come around after being pushed by our communities and the grassroots.”
Despite sharing similar views of a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen, Mr. Bowman, who has touted himself as liberal on foreign policy, targeted Mr. Engel’s 2015 vote against the Iran nuclear deal and his history of accepting donations from weapons manufacturers.
“He supports a hawkish and costly foreign policy agenda instead of focusing on the communities in our district that have been neglected for far too long,” Mr. Bowman said.
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