An AOC-backed New York candidate just pulled off a stunning upset over a powerful House Democrat in New York

insider@insider.com (Eliza Relman)
·5 min read
Jamaal Bowman
Jamaal Bowman, a Democratic congressional candidate, at Edenwald Houses in the Bronx borough of New York City. Bowman is looking to unseat Rep. Eliot Engel.

Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

  • Rep. Eliot Engel, a 30-year House veteran and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has lost his Democratic primary on Tuesday to a progressive challenger, Jamaal Bowman.

  • The Bronx moderate has held his seat in New York's 16th Congressional District for three decades and hadn't faced a competitive primary challenger in 20 years.

  • Bowman had overtaken Engel in polls in the weeks leading up to the election, and a few strategic errors on Engel's part helped consolidate Bowman's support.

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Rep. Eliot Engel, a 30-year House veteran and chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has lost his Democratic primary on Tuesday to a progressive challenger, Jamaal Bowman — a significant victory for the left and a blow to the party establishment.

Bowman had won nearly 62% of the vote, with Engel trailing by 27 percentage points, according to Decision Desk HQ, which decided to call the race for Bowman after determining it would be near impossible for Engel to make up the gap in votes with the absentee ballots left to be processed. 

Because of the large number of New Yorkers voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, the final results of the race likely won't be known until next Tuesday, June 30, meaning Bowman's current lead over Engel is not final and could narrow.

Ballots postmarked by June 23 will count if they arrive at election offices by then. Under New York law, all in-person votes must be processed and cross-checked before any absentee ballots can be counted.

Engel, a 73-year-old Bronx moderate, has held his seat in New York's 16th Congressional District for three decades and hadn't faced a competitive primary challenger in 20 years. Bowman, a Black former Bronx middle-school principal, ran to his left on a policy platform that included the Green New Deal and Medicare for All.

Bowman had overtaken Engel in polls in the weeks leading up to the election, and a few strategic errors on Engel's part helped consolidate Bowman's support. The progressive group Data for Progress found Bowman up by 10 points in its polling earlier this month.

Engel's campaign took a significant hit earlier this month when he was caught on a hot mic telling Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz that he "wouldn't care" about speaking at a news conference about protests against police brutality if he weren't facing a primary challenge.

The gaffe attracted significant negative media attention at a moment when Engel could least afford it.

Meanwhile, Bowman attracted high-profile endorsements from prominent progressives, including New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

With his reelection in jeopardy, Engel won last-minute endorsements from powerful New York Democrats, including Hillary Clinton, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a longtime ally of Engel's, endorsed the incumbent earlier this month but attempted to ward off the perception that her support of a colleague signaled disapproval of the progressive movement.

"I firmly support Eliot Engel for Congress and I support Alexandria for Congress as well," Pelosi told reporters. "I think the people of New York are very blessed to have them both in the Congress."

Bowman's triumph would mark a win for Ocasio-Cortez and the progressive left, whose coalition was soundly beaten in the Democratic presidential primary as former Vice President Joe Biden defeated Sanders and Warren.

"This is an important result for the surging progressive wing of the party and proves their momentum continues," Ian Russell, a former deputy executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told Business Insider. "This will be especially significant because the momentum will likely continue to build heading into the redistricting cycle, which could have a big impact on the House map — especially in safe Democratic seats."

Those on the progressive left said the success of New York's left-wing candidates was evidence that these races should be replicated elsewhere.

"The Black base and progressives is the coalition everywhere. It's how we win," Sean McElwee, a co-founder of Data for Progress, told Insider of Bowman's likely win. "Progressives need authentic coalitions."

Bowman's success is in some ways strikingly similar to Ocasio-Cortez's defeat of Rep. Joe Crowley in the 2018 primary. Both progressive challengers took on veteran white congressmen with more moderate politics in districts that are mostly Black and brown and disproportionately immigrant. Engel, like Crowley, is one of the most powerful Democrats in the House.

Like Ocasio-Cortez did in 2018, Bowman argued that Engel had lost touch with his constituents. Indeed, Engel had faced scrutiny for remaining in his home outside Washington for much of the pandemic, even while his Bronx district was ravaged by the coronavirus.

"I ask voters about our current representative, Eliot Engel, and I hear one word across the district: absent," Bowman said in a recent campaign ad. "He doesn't live in our community — I live in our struggles. He's taken us for granted. After 31 years of the same, it's time for a change."

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