Engel Teetering as Progressives Show Strength in New York


A progressive newcomer appeared on the brink of toppling veteran lawmaker Eliot Engel in Tuesday’s New York’s Democratic primary, in which left-leaning candidates found a surge of support that could begin reshaping of the state’s representation in the U.S. House.

With thousands of absentee votes yet to be counted, Engel was trailing, by a wide margin, former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, who challenged the 16-term congressman with the backing of Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Two other progressive candidates, New York City Council member Ritchie Torres and lawyer Mondaire Jones were leading in multi-candidate races to run for seats left open by retiring Democrats. Another longtime incumbent, Representative Carolyn Maloney, was in a surprising close contest with a challenger from the left. Ocasio-Cortez easily defeated a challenger backed by Wall Street money.

“The left movement of the Democrats is clear,” New York based political consultant Hank Sheinkopf said. “This is a generational shift.”

Before Tuesday’s New York primaries, the Democratic progressive wing had been hit by set backs in an attempt to build on the momentum from Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning 2018 upset win against an entrenched incumbent. Sanders and Warren both failed in their bid to seize the Democratic presidential nomination and progressive candidates were defeated in primary races in Texas and Ohio.

Absentee Ballots

Many of Tuesday’s primary races haven’t been officially called. A flood of mail-in balloting prompted by voter concerns about the spread of the coronavirus meant half or more of the votes cast haven’t been counted. Counting and tabulations of those absentee ballots in local congressional districts will not even start until July 1, meaning the final outcomes in some races may not be known until then.

That could be a preview of the November general election and the possibility the nation won’t know the results of the races for control of the White House and Congress for days after the Nov. 3 vote.

President Donald Trump, who’s been trailing Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden in polls, has been criticizing the practice of voting by mail as an opportunity for fraud, an allegation not substantiated by evidence. Democrats are pressing for wider use of mailed ballots.

Bowman had 60% of the of the votes that have been been counted. Dave Wasserman, House analyst for the non-partisan Cook Political Report, said on Twitter that he expected Bowman would prevail once all the votes are in.

“In my judgment, this Bowman lead is too large for Engel to overcome in the absentees,” Wasserman said in a tweet.

Bowman, 44, released a statement after Wasserman’s tweet. “Many doubted that we could overcome the power and money of a 31-year incumbent,” he said. “But the results show that the people of NY-16 aren’t just ready for change - they’re demanding it.”

Engel’s campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Sheinkopf said it was “not impossible” for Engel, 73, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, to pull out a win if absentee votes swing his way by a substantial margin. “Regardless, change is here to stay,” he said.

Shifting Sentiment

Some of sentiment for a changing of the guard has particularly taken root in urban district’s like Engel’s, which is about two-thirds non-White, amid the continuing protests and unrest nationwide and renewed focus on racial inequities following the death in police custody of George Floyd, an African-American man in Minneapolis. Bowman, Jones and Torres are Black. Jones and Torres also would be the first openly gay Black members of Congress if elected.

A Bowman win, like Ocasio-Cortez’s victory in 2018, would mark a loss for another White incumbent who had become a power broker on Capitol Hill but came under criticism that he was out of touch with a changing district.

Stu Loeser, a New York-based political communications strategist, said that while some candidates carry the mantle of progressive, that’s not the only rationale for their campaigns or necessarily their reason for success. He noted that when Jones initially announced he was running, it was to challenge Representative Nita Lowey, prior to her decision to retire in part based on locally relevant issues.

“Mondaire Jones announced he was going to make an issue of her alleged failure to keep State and Local Tax (SALT TAX) deductibility in the Federal budget. Jones was going to run to her left on a lot of issues, but he was also going to challenge her over not protecting her comparatively wealthy constituents from paying higher Federal taxes,” Loeser said.

A similar dynamic was playing out in the Democratic Senate primary in Kentucky to select a candidate to challenge Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in November. Heavy absentee balloting also is delaying a final result there.

State Representative Charles Booker, a Black progressive, is running against Amy McGrath, a former Marine fighter pilot who had been party leaders’ choice.

Booker, 35, also is endorsed by Sanders, Warren and Ocasio-Cortez and campaigned on his support for universal health care, investments in new environmentally friendly industries, and the idea of a universal basic income provided by the government. McGrath, 45, campaigned as a moderate able to work with Trump, who trounced Hillary Clinton in the state in 2016.

McGrath, who ran unsuccessfully for a U.S. House seat in 2018, had raised $41 million from donors eager to defeat the Republican Senate leader, compared with only $800,000 for Booker by June 3, according to Federal Election Commission reports.

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