Bowman ouster underscores political danger for progressives

House progressives are facing the biggest threat to their power in years after Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s (D) ouster in New York.

Bowman, a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), became the first “Squad” member to lose reelection after he was defeated by moderate George Latimer in a race that was defined by the inflamed intraparty tensions over the Israel-Hamas war.

Members of the left are also staring down the possibility of a second major loss as Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.), another Squad member, faces a strong Democratic challenger in August, prompting questions about the influence progressives will hold in Congress going forward.

“I was supporting Jamaal, and it’s sad to see him lose that race, obviously he’s a colleague, a member of the CPC and fellow progressive,” said Rep. Maxwell Alejandro Frost (D-Fla.).

“Losing a member of the CPC does chip away at the progressive movement,” Frost added. “A lot of times [you] take a few steps forward and you take a few steps back and you keep going forward.”

Bowman’s defeat exposed flaws in the left’s campaign playbook. He had already lost the confidence of fellow progressives, who saw his reelection against Latimer, the Westchester County executive, as a long shot. Many organizers who wanted to see Bowman pull off an unlikely victory knew his chances were slim.

Progressives saw the election as a referendum on “big money” in politics, with the 16th Congressional District serving as a laboratory for pro-Israel groups. The race was the most expensive House Democratic primary in history, largely thanks to the contributions of those groups.

At the center of the cash dash was the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which pumped roughly $14 million into the race for anti-Bowman, pro-Latimer ads.

“It was money, I think,” said Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.), a former chair of the CPC. “The messaging is a little bit all over in the primary, that’s a bit of the problem, but when you have that much money influencing what is being talked about, and it’s not coming from either candidate, I mean, that is fundamentally the problem.”

Michael Ceraso, a veteran Democratic strategist, said the inordinate amount of spending seen in races like Bowman’s could shape candidates’ positions and have a “ripple impact” on other progressives by proxy.

“Sadly, politicians from both sides of the aisle often align where the money is,” Ceraso said.

Bowman’s criticisms of Israel amid the ongoing war with the Palestinian militant group Hamas in the wake of the Oct. 7 attacks made his race a referendum on how palatable his stance is, especially since his district has a strong Jewish population. Now Democrats are trying to determine what the lessons from his race are for the party nationwide.

“You never can lose touch with your district,” said one Democratic lawmaker, speaking without attribution to express a critique of Bowman. “You’ve got to know who your voters are. And so when you lose touch with your voters, this is what happens.”

“Of course there was a ton of money put into the race, but I think primarily he lost touch with his district,” the lawmaker added.

Progressives have escalated criticism of Israel since the Oct. 7 attack, which resulted in the deaths of more than 1,000 people and sparked retaliatory action that has in turn led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Palestinians. Bowman emerged as one of the most vociferous Israel critics in Congress, calling for a cease-fire earlier than other colleagues in the lower chamber and bringing attention to the collective death toll in Gaza.

Many high-profile progressives rallied around the endangered Bowman, including Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who drew crowds in the Bronx the weekend before the primary.

Heading into Tuesday, Bowman, 48, had fallen significantly behind Latimer, 70, in polling, and he struggled to get out in front of attacks over wording like “genocide” and “apartheid” he frequently used to describe Israel’s actions against Palestinians.

Many of his Democratic House counterparts criticized his terminology. Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.), who is Jewish, became the first sitting member of Congress to endorse Latimer in the days before the election.

“I just think last night was a show that common-sense Democrats won last night,” Gottheimer told The Hill on Wednesday.

Pro-Israel groups latched onto Bowman’s remarks and spent bucketloads of money to create a narrative that suggested the incumbent promoted antisemitic sentiments. The most recognized group, AIPAC, and its adjoined super PAC invested $14.5 million in the race in what progressives see as one of the biggest contributors to Bowman’s defeat.

“​​What it shows my friends on the progressive left is that you can go out and fight for Palestinians, you can go out and fight and be anti-war. But when people are chanting in the street ‘kill the Jews,’ right, ‘go back to Poland,’ right, you can’t be silent,” said Rep. Jared Moskowitz (D-Fla.), another Jewish Democrat. “And a lot of them here have been silent.”

“You can do both,” Moskowitz added. “I think you can absolutely be against antisemitism and you can go fight for folks in Gaza. And I think, I guess the voters in his district decided he wasn’t doing that.”

Progressives, however, saw the cash influx as part of a bigger problem amid a growing rift between progressives and moderate Democrats in the House.

Hassan Martini, executive director of No Dem Left Behind, which helps progressive candidates get elected to higher office, called AIPAC and the pro-Israel lobby “undemocratic and against free speech” — a common call among leftists who saw their flank rise since Ocasio-Cortez’s stunning upset against an establishment incumbent in 2018.

“This is not about progressive vs. nonprogressive; this is about the ability to speak freely without being attacked by interest groups,” Martini said. “The more money AIPAC pours in, the more they are unifying everyone else against them. The ramifications of these harmful actions will be felt far into the future for the pro-Israel lobby politically.”

The results represent a striking turn of events from just a few years ago, when Bowman first defeated staunchly pro-Israel Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) as part of a surge on the left that also included Bush’s success in Missouri.

Pro-Israel groups are now also helping to finance Bush’s opponent, St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell, hoping to replicate Bowman’s loss in her district. On the morning after Bowman’s defeat, Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) released new polling with The Mellman Group showing that Bush and Bell are statistically tied in what was previously considered a safer seat for Bush.

“Voters in her district, but across the country, need to be very wary of the large amounts of spending that can occur because you could just get overwhelmed by the number of ads,” said Rep. Greg Casar (D-Texas), another newer Squad member, about Bush’s upcoming primary.

“Mr. Bowman’s race opens up the floodgates to potentially tens of millions of dollars being spent in primaries, tens of millions of dollars that aren’t necessarily talking about in their ads the issues that that big interest cares about, but about something else,” Casar said.

“In the short term it’s gonna be so important for Democratic primary voters across the country to be aware that now there’s unprecedented money being spent to smear progressives, and that they should be much more skeptical of what it is they’re constantly seeing on their Hulu or their social media stream or on broadcast TV,” he added.

As progressives were largely demoralized, moderate Democrats looked at Bowman’s fate as a positive sign for centrists.

Rep. Annie Kuster (D-N.H.), the chair of the centrist New Democratic Coalition, called “a moderate, pragmatic approach” the way to win in the fall. Like others in her wing, moderates turn attention to Biden and the possibility of Republicans aligned with former President Trump reclaiming parts of Washington as the ultimate benchmark for voters to consider.

“The stakes are so high in this election, voters understand that our freedom is on the ballot, our democracy is on the ballot,” Kuster said. “And so they understand that they need to make a pragmatic choice in these primaries to position the right person to win back.”

Progressives aren’t as focused on the Biden-Trump effect and still see merits in promoting a left-of-center agenda. Many say Bowman’s loss and Bush’s uncertain future underscore the problems within the party.

A Bowman loss signifies “how far back things have moved since we have acquiesced to Biden’s centrist and frankly pro-war worldview,” said Cullen Tiernan, the political director of a local labor union based in New Hampshire.

“The goals of the progressive movement, be it world peace, health care for all, dark money out of politics — they all have taken a back burner to subservience to Biden and the party,” he said.

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