Progressives snatch much-needed wins in primary gauntlet

Sarah Ferris, Ally Mutnick and Heather Caygle

Progressive leaders on and off Capitol Hill are emboldened after Tuesday’s high-stakes primaries, with the success of a slew of hand-picked candidates signaling the left is far from finished in the battle for the Democratic Party’s future.

The biggest prize, of course, is the looming victory of Jamaal Bowman over House Foreign Affairs Chair Eliot Engel. The "Medicare for All" and "Green New Deal"-backing challenger was once a long shot to defeat the powerful incumbent, but the establishment’s late rescue effort proved futile.

But Bowman isn’t alone. He’s one of several left-leaning Democrats who performed even better than expected against well-funded opponents, with progressive-backed Mondaire Jones on track to easily win in the New York City suburbs and Charles Booker holding on in a close fight against Senate leadership-favorite Amy McGrath in Kentucky.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney, chair of the Oversight Committee, has been left hanging by a thread against progressive challenger Suraj Patel until officials can count the remaining tens of thousands of absentee ballots.

“I think what you’re seeing is across the district a rejection of the politics of the past, a rejection of character assassination in politics and frankly a rejection of the idea that simply holding a job entitles you to keep it,” Patel said in an interview.

Tuesday’s results are a much-needed win for insurgent progressive groups like Justice Democrats, after a string of high-profile loses. Just months earlier, the group came up empty in costly battles to take out Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat in Texas, or to replace Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio) with a liberal challenger nearly half her age.

But the race against Engel, progressives say, has demonstrated their staying power beyond the now-famous upset by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez two years ago against then-Rep. Joe Crowley, the No. 4 House Democrat and a powerhouse in New York politics.

“When we challenged Crowley, everyone said it was crazy. When we won, everyone said it was a fluke, because Crowley never took her seriously,” Waleed Shahid, who leads communications for Justice Democrats, said Wednesday. “This victory really cements that there's a lot of districts in this country where people want more progressive representation.”

Jamaal Bowman speaks to attendees during his primary-night party Tuesday, June. 23, 2020, in New York. Bowman was running against Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., in the primary. (AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez)

The shakeup in New York also marks a huge moment for the Democrats’ left wing in the halls of Congress, including the 100-plus member Congressional Progressive Caucus. The group has poured even more energy into congressional races after the fall of its champion, Sen. Bernie Sanders, in the presidential contest to the more moderate Joe Biden.

And the caucus is likely to pad its ranks even further in 2020 with more Democrats who support its ambitious agenda of tackling climate change, providing universal health care and overhauling the immigration system.

Tuesday’s primaries were a big test of the CPC's political arm, which had endorsed two candidates in uncertain open-seat New York primaries with double-digit contenders in each race. Both of those candidates — Ritchie Torres and Jones — are now on track to win in New York’s 15th and 17th Districts, respectively, though the races will not be called until after absentee ballots are counted next week.

Torres and Jones — who are both running in safe Democratic seats and are all but certain to win the general election this November — would also be the first two openly gay Black members of Congress.

Jones won the Democratic primary to replace retiring Rep. Nita Lowey, while Torres, a New York City councilman, won a hard-fought contest to replace outgoing Democratic Rep. Jose Serrano.

The CPC's campaign arm upped its efforts to play in open-seat primaries this year, launching its first-ever independent expenditure to provide backing for Jones. It was the first allied group to launch ads supporting Jones, spending nearly $200,000 promoting his candidacy.

Their efforts this year were a big jump from two cycles ago when the CPC PAC raised just $300,000 in total. Buoyed by small-dollar donations, it has brought in more than $2 million so far in the 2020 cycle, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), co-chair of the CPC, said in an interview last week.

The CPC has also strengthened its relationships with other like-minded groups, such as the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Democracy for America and Indivisible, so they can act in tandem in House races.

“We’ve just professionalized the work that we’re doing as a Progressive Caucus and we also have a lot of progressive partners that we talk to and try to work in sync with,” Pocan said.

Ocasio-Cortez, who fended off her own primary challenge on Tuesday, has also built up her own campaign powerhouse in her first two years in office. The freshman Democrat raised $10.6 million this cycle, with the vast majority coming from small-dollar donations. Her PAC, Courage to Change, launched in January and has endorsed its own slate of candidates.

The left’s surge in Tuesday’s primaries in states such as New York, Kentucky and Virginia comes two years after the last stunning upset in New York, with Ocasio-Cortez taking down Crowley, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus at the time.

Justice Democrats roared into the next cycle with a half-dozen big races, looking to unseat two sitting chairmen. But before this week, just one was successful: Marie Newman unseated Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.), the last remaining anti-abortion House Democrat.

Bowman is now ahead by a virtually insurmountable lead in the Bronx, though The Associated Press isn’t expected to formally call the election until New York counts its absentee ballots.

Justice Democrats see their candidate’s all-but-certain election in November as a sign of lasting impact for their organization. It will be on track to defeat four incumbents, including two members of leadership, in just two years.

But Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus’ campaign arm, cautioned against reading too much into progressives’ high-profile victories. Meeks, as Queens Democratic Party chair, has had his own tussles with the progressive flank and has in the past been critical of the left-wing movement to overthrow Democratic incumbents.

Meeks pointed to the Democratic incumbents who won Tuesday, including Rep. Yvette Clarke, who easily dispatched the same challenger who almost beat her in 2018.

“Look at New York particularly — Yvette Clarke, it looks like she’s going on. I’m winning. Jerry Nadler is winning. Carolyn Maloney is up,” Meeks said in an interview Wednesday when asked about progressive influence on the party.

“From my viewpoint, what we want to do is we want to make sure we’re electing individuals who are appropriate from their respective districts so that we can keep them Democratic seats and stay in the majority.”