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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