Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez promised a revolution in the Democratic Party, pledging that other young progressives would soon join her lead in pushing out old, white, centrist incumbents. She seems to have won a key battle Friday in her neighboring New York district, where former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman was declared the winner in his Democratic primary run against House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, first elected to Congress in 1988.
The vast majority of Justice Democrats who have run over the past two House cycles have lost, often in humiliating fashion.
Bowman’s primary win, which took more than three weeks to call due to an usually high number of absentee ballots, looks a lot like Ocasio-Cortez’s two years ago. The then 28-year-old political novice beat a member of the House Democratic leadership in one of the biggest upsets in recent congressional history. Like AOC in her Queens- and Bronx-based constituency, Bowman, 44, ran from the left against Engel, 73, emphasizing the Green New Deal, “Medicare for All” and other favorite progressive policies. (Bowman is a shoo-in to join Congress after the November general election; he faces no Republican opponent.)
Toss in another first-term House member who in 2018 beat a 20-year white male incumbent in a Democratic primary, Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and it’s easy to call this a trend. All three were backed by Justice Democrats, a group that proclaims to be “unafraid of taking on out-of-touch incumbents in primary challenges because we don’t need to just elect more Democrats, we need to elect better Democrats.”
But to believe Bowman’s ouster of Engel is a sign that the Ocasio-Cortez wing of the Democratic Party is taking over would be a severe misreading of the political landscape at the congressional level — and nationally. She attracts an inordinate amount of attention for a first-term lawmaker, keeping up an active and innovative social media presence, and appearing frequently on television. It’s easy to conflate the publicity with political influence.
In fact, the vast majority of Justice Democrats who have run over the past two House cycles have lost, often in humiliating fashion. Since emerging on the national scene in 2018, Justice Democrats have recorded few wins outside of Bowman, Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley. In 2018, Justice Democrats endorsed 65 nonincumbent candidates in House races, mostly in open seats. Only 24 made it through Democratic primaries, and a mere seven of those won congressional seats in the fall.
Compare that to the “majority makers” who were a backbone of House Democrats’ sweeping 2018 victories, including lawmakers from deep-red districts like Reps. Kendra Horn of Oklahoma and Joe Cunningham of South Carolina.
The story is similar in 2020. A much-hyped primary challenge in Texas to Democratic Rep. Henry Cuellar came up short. So did one to Joyce Beatty in Ohio, in that case by a whopping 68 percent to 32 percent margin. Several more Justice Democrats’ challenges to incumbents later this summer don’t look particularly promising.
In fact, on the same day that voters went to the polls for Bowman, a highly touted liberal challenger in the Kentucky Democratic Senate primary, state Rep. Charles Booker, lost to a Senate Democratic candidate hand-picked by Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer. Amy McGrath, a former Marine pilot, is the definition of a moderate Democrat, opposing Medicare for All and talking up bread-and-butter Democratic issues like raising the minimum wage.
It’s not surprising that left-wing insurgents thought 2020 was a ripe year in which to take down Democratic incumbents. The nation is roiled by protests over law enforcement tactics following the death in Minneapolis police custody of George Floyd, a black man, reaching an apex shortly before the New York primary on June 23.
That climate helped Bowman in getting out his message of change against three-decade incumbent Engel. And the coronavirus pandemic — worsening for months amidst rising anger at the Trump administration’s shoddy and lackluster response — is the kind of crisis in which voters are tempted to vent frustration at sitting lawmakers.
But the high-profile loss by Engel — and the vanquished Democratic opponents of Ocasio-Cortez and Pressley in 2018, Joe Crowley and Mike Capuano, respectively — have as much to do with incumbents’ laziness and complacency as the national zeitgeist.
Engel often gave the impression the House seat was his for life. He was best-known for arriving hours early to State of the Union addresses to stake out an aisle spot in the House chamber, from which he could shake the president’s hand (a practice he discontinued after Trump moved into the White House.)
On June 2, Engel was caught on a hot mic at a district event responding to nationwide unrest by saying — twice — that he only sought news coverage because he faced a primary challenge. And weeks earlier, he grew defensive when an Atlantic writer knocked on his home in a leafy Washington suburb and was forced to admit that he was riding out the coronavirus pandemic hundreds of miles away from his hard-hit Bronx and Westchester County constituents.
Two years earlier, Crowley wildly misread constituents’ moods in a district he had represented for nearly 20 years. His campaign’s polling was way off, and like Engel, his family lived in the Washington area. Capuano, also elected in 1998, was slow to realize that changing demographics to the Cambridge-based district whose predecessors included House Speaker Tip O’Neill and a young John F. Kennedy could doom his political career.
This trio of older white guys also hail from some of the bluest territory in the United States. It’s not terribly surprising that these centers of liberal activism eventually backed candidates further to the left than their longtime officeholders.
But replicating that and scaling it in much more diverse swaths of America is tougher. To really have a revolution, more voters needed to be added to the Democratic coalition rather than making it ideologically pure, which is inevitably a process of subtraction.
Then there’s the center-left, rather than far-left, nature of the Democratic Party nationally. At the top of the ticket sits Joe Biden — about as establishment a Democrat as exists — after he handily defeated a deep and diverse field of candidates to his left. The bulk of voters tend toward the moderate side.
At the top of the ticket sits Joe Biden — about as establishment a Democrat as exists — after he handily defeated a deep and diverse field of candidates to his left.
With the exception of Bowman and progressive pickups in a couple of open House seats in 2020, left-wing insurgent campaigns for congressional seats aren't turning out much better than they did even when democratic socialist candidate Bernie Sanders, a Vermont senator, had the momentum. Biden’s primary win made clear there was no national progressive majority, not even close.
Left-wing populism was always going to bump up against its natural electoral limits. Even House Democratic leaders pushing for police reform legislation have rejected calls to defund or outright abolish police departments. The chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Karen Bass of California, last month brushed off calls from far-left activists to defund or eliminate police departments.
As for the future congressman Bowman, he’ll be in the minority of the majority party (assuming Democrats hold onto the House). Just not quite as much of a minority as comprised the far-left flank a couple of years ago.