Jamaal Bowman ousted by conservative challenger in setback to congressional progressives

Heavy outside spending, a pro-Israel backlash and unforced errors brought down the two-term incumbent from New York

Published June 26, 2024 3:00PM (EDT)

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) watches as Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) speaks during a Get Out the Vote campaign event at Hartley Park on June 24, 2024 in Mount Vernon, New York. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) watches as Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) speaks during a Get Out the Vote campaign event at Hartley Park on June 24, 2024 in Mount Vernon, New York. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), facing a torrent of outside money and suffering from avoidable blunders that alienated him from his House district, suffered a 17-point loss to Westchester County Executive George Latimer in Tuesday's New York primary election. The defeat of this outspoken Squad member and critic of Israel is a blow to progressives in the Democratic Party, who have faced a number of well-funded primary challenges from the right.

The election in New York's 16th District, one of the most heavily Jewish districts in the country, was seen by some political observers as a bellwether for attitudes towards the Israel-Palestine conflict. Bowman first won his seat in 2020 after defeating Eliot Engel, an entrenched incumbent and Israel hawk perceived as out of touch with the everyday concerns of his constituents. In late 2023, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a hardline pro-Israel group funded in part by GOP donors, sought a challenger who could take down Bowman and lead a centrist pushback against the Democratic Party's left flank.

Latimer, a moderate Democrat who announced his primary challenge just after returning from a trip to Israel, had patiently courted the goodwill of local political leaders, with some who urged him to run citing Bowman's record of criticizing the Israeli government. He also benefited from a redistricting that left only a sliver of the Bronx in a district that now encompasses most of suburban Westchester County.

While Latimer, an unequivocal supporter of Israel, relentlessly attacked Bowman for his criticism of Israel's destructive invasion of Gaza and support for a ceasefire, AIPAC followed its playbook of avoiding any mention of Israel in its ads and instead used its $14 million budget to characterize him as insufficiently loyal to President Joe Biden. The most expensive House primary race in U.S. history turned out to be completely lopsided: by one tally, Latimer-aligned groups outspent Bowman seven to one.

"It is an outrage and an insult to democracy that we maintain a corrupt campaign finance system which allows billionaire-funded super PACs to buy elections," said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who endorsed Bowman. "AIPAC and other super PACs spent over $23 million to defeat Bowman. He spent $3 million. That is a spending gap which is virtually impossible to overcome."

As Bowman flamed out, a fellow Squad member, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., was cruising to a 64-point victory in New York's 14th District. Two months earlier, another Squad member, Summer Lee, easily snuffed out a centrist rival after AIPAC declined to intervene. In choosing to make an example out of Bowman, centrist and pro-Israel forces trained their fire on a lawmaker who had helped undermine his own political standing with a series of unforced errors for which he was routinely mocked.

In early October, Bowman faced a House censure and misdemeanor charge for pulling a fire alarm in the U.S. Capitol, seemingly to delay votes on GOP legislation. His response to the escalating violence in Israel and Palestine a week later largely stayed in line with the demands of other progressives for a permanent ceasefire and to hold Israel accountable for its killing of Palestinian civilians, but a video of him calling reports of Hamas raping Israeli women "propaganda" earned him an especially strong rebuke. Opposition researchers also ferreted out old blog posts dabbling in 9/11 conspiracy theories during his time as a middle school principal, which Bowman later said he regretted publishing.

Bowman's actions may have made it easier for his political opponents to paint some of his other comments in a harsher light. Bowman, for example, argued that Israel purports to "represent all Jews," a claim he said was "dangerous" because when Israel is "behaving badly" it risks inciting antisemitism against Jews elsewhere. Fellow New York Democratic Rep. Dan Goldman called that "quintessential antisemitism," even as he noted, like Bowman, that it would be wrong to blame all Jews for the actions of the Israeli government.

Latimer, who promised to deliver "results, not rhetoric," capitalized on Bowman's errors and reputation as a confrontational, unapologetic progressive by painting him as ineffective. Bowman, campaigning as the candidate of the working class and people of color, pointed out that he helped secure $1 billion in government funding for the residents of Bronx and Westchester and accused of Latimer answering only to rich suburbanites. But he also continued to make the race something of a referendum on Israel, noting that Latimer has supported providing the country with billions of dollars in military aid "while we are struggling to live day to day right here in this district."

We need your help to stay independent

Late in the campaign, Latimer got into trouble for making racially insensitive remarks, such as suggesting that Bowman, a Black man, had an "ethnic advantage" and was working only for his Black and brown constituents. He made another version of that claim in a debate, where he accused Bowman of working for residents of places like Dearborn, Michigan which has a large Arab-American population. Ultimately, it appears the charges of racism didn't stick as stubbornly as Latimer's accusation that Bowman was peddling antisemitism with his criticism of Israel.

Similarly, Bowman struggled to press home the message that he had delivered for his district as Latimer collected endorsements from local officials who he had cultivated since being elected as Westchester County Executive in 2017. While Bowman could count on the support of national progressive leaders like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, it's unclear that their appearance at a joint rally helped disprove criticism that he was aloof to local issues. The fact that the rally took place in the South Bronx, miles outside of his district, didn't help either.

Throughout one of the nastier congressional campaigns in recent memory, Bowman consistently trailed Latimer in the polls, so his defeat came as little surprise. While Latimer is all but guaranteed a victory in November's general election, the primary race exposed deep rifts within the Democratic coalition, with Bowman performing strongly in working class and ethnically diverse areas like the Bronx, where he won 84% of the vote, while Latimer ran up large margins in wealthy, suburban Westchester. In a district with more Westchester than Bronx, this spelled doom for Bowman.

He may have already been standing in the pit when AIPAC buried him.

By Nicholas Liu

Nicholas (Nick) Liu is a News Fellow at Salon. He grew up in Hong Kong, earned a B.A. in History at the University of Chicago, and began writing for local publications like the Santa Barbara Independent and Straus News Manhattan.

MORE FROM Nicholas Liu

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Analysis George Latimer Jamaal Bowman