For the second time in two years, a democratic socialist upstart from the Bronx has knocked a powerful Democratic congressman from office.
In the Tuesday primary for New York’s 16th Congressional District, progressive challenger Jamaal Bowman defeated Rep. Eliot Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, according to the Associated Press. The win, which took nearly one month to tally, all but ensures Bowman’s place in Congress next year.
"From the very beginning, we anchored our campaign in the fight for racial justice," Bowman said in a statement on Wednesday. "We spoke truth—about the police, about systemic racism, about inequality—and it resonated in every part of the district."
But unlike former Rep. Joe Crowley—the Queens Democratic Party boss who was ousted by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a 2018 surprise—Engel saw Bowman coming a million miles away. The former public school teacher spent months running a high-energy primary campaign that landed on the national radar, forcing Engel, a 31-year incumbent, to dust off a campaign organization and spend millions in hopes of keeping his seat.
Bowman’s victory may not be as great a shock to the system as Ocasio-Cortez’s was—in fact, he was increasingly seen as the favorite in the race—but it’s nevertheless a shot in the arm for the left’s project of replacing rusty moderates with young progressives. That effort, powered by left-wing figures like Ocasio-Cortez and groups like Justice Democrats, had suffered a string of disappointments this primary cycle.
Increasingly, progressives viewed Bowman’s campaign as their best—and perhaps only—chance to score a win to give their movement some momentum past 2020. Ocasio-Cortez backed his bid, as did a roster of top figures in the progressive wing of the party, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Katie Porter (D-CA). Over the course of his campaign, Bowman pulled in an impressive $2 million in contributions.
The party establishment, meanwhile, made an attempt to rescue the longest-serving member of New York’s congressional delegation, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), and Gov. Andrew Cuomo all endorsing Engel.
But as Bowman aggressively pressed the case that Engel was out-of-touch with his constituents, the longtime incumbent made high profile gaffes that made that case themselves. In April, The Atlantic reported that Engel had ridden out the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic not in his district—which contains some of the hardest-hit areas in the country—but in his home in suburban Maryland. That report also found that Engel’s campaign had misled voters about his participation in events around the district.
Then, in June, Engel appeared at an event with local leaders, where he said twice into a hot mic that he wouldn’t be there if he didn’t have a primary challenger.
In Bowman—who is basically a shoo-in to win the general election in this safely blue seat—the House’s faction of proudly leftist young lawmakers is poised to get another member. Bowman has embraced the label of democratic socialism, and backs the policies like Medicare for All that are central to that wing of the party. A Black man and public school teacher, Bowman also emerged as a voice within the party on the protests of racism and police brutality that swept the country.
Engel’s ouster, meanwhile, has significant implications for Capitol Hill. As chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel has been an influential figure on foreign policy—particularly Israel and the Middle East—and active in the investigations into President Donald Trump and his State Department. The pro-Israel lobby, which dropped over $1 million to save Engel, will lose one of its most stalwart and hawkish allies. The race to succeed him as chairman, which had begun to play out even before any ballots were counted in his race, will only intensify among House Democrats.