This year’s primary season has been a mixed bag for the insurgent progressives within the Democratic Party’s ranks, but Tuesday’s results in and around New York City seem to have cemented Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’ (D–N.Y.) status as more than a fluky upstart.
Ocasio-Cortez easily won her congressional primary election on Tuesday night, a result that effectively ensures a second term for the 30-year-old. Then, she may have delivered a knockout blow to a 16-term incumbent who had been endorsed by Hillary Clinton and other long-time Democratic leaders. It’s too soon to call her a kingmaker within Democratic politics, but two-years after she beat an 11-term incumbent, Ocasio-Cortez—with help from the vast sums of money she’s been able to raise in the past two years—appears to have scored another victory in the proxy war between leftists and centrists.
This time, the victim was Rep. Eliot Engel (D–N.Y.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a noted hawk, who appears to be on course to lose to Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal whose candidacy was endorsed by Ocasio-Cortez. With 91 percent of precincts reporting and absentee ballots still waiting to be counted in the 16th district—which includes parts of Bronx and Westchester counties—Bowman had a whopping 25 point lead over Engel on Wednesday afternoon.
I’ve seen enough: Jamaal Bowman (D) has defeated 16-term Rep. Eliot Engel (D) in the #NY16 primary.
— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) June 24, 2020
In addition to Ocasio-Cortez, Bowman was endorsed by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.), while the longtime incumbent Engel picked up an endorsement from Hillary Clinton last week to go along with support from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D–Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.).
But Clinton, Pelosi, and Schumer couldn’t save Engel, who seems likely to become just the second incumbent Democrat to lose a primary this year after Rep. Dan Lipinski (D–Ill.).
Bowman, a 44-year old teacher-turned-principal, used his campaign to call for a “third Reconstruction” to build on the legal and social advances made by black Americans in the wake of the Civil War and again during the civil rights movement. He’s called for removing military weaponry from police departments and repealing the 1994 federal crime bill that caused America’s prison population to skyrocket.
In the neighboring 14th district, Ocasio-Cortez saw off a trio of primary challengers with relative ease. With only absentee ballots left to be counted on Wednesday afternoon, she had won more than 72 percent of the vote.
The most serious challenge to Ocasio-Cortez came from Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, a former CNBC anchor and self-described fiscal conservative who criticized the first-term progressive’s expensive agenda. But she was no match for AOC’s campaign spending. Ocasio-Cortez has raised more than $10 million since 2019, and she spent more than $2.4 million on Facebook ads alone since January—far more than any other member of Congress has, The New York Times reported last week—as the COVID-19 pandemic effectively halted traditional campaigning in her district.
We should not overstate the success of progressives during this campaign cycle. In the presidential race, most obviously, candidates who tried to raise their profile by competing in the “woke primary” were rejected by voters and an old white guy with a track record that’s anything but progressive eventually emerged as the party’s presumptive nominee. With Engel being only the second centrist incumbent to lose a primary this year suggests that 2020 is not exactly a bloodbath for moderate Democrats.
That the party establishment has limited the losses is probably good for the Democrats’ chances in November. If the party wants to expand its House majority, flip the Senate, and take the White House, it has to appeal to voters in purple and red districts—not just those in the Bronx or at Berkeley.
Still, Congress could be a better institution with more outsiders who are willing to challenge their party’s leadership, as Ocasio-Cortez has done on occasion. And, if nothing else, at least we get to enjoy the defeat of a Clintonite interventionist like Engel.