AOC, other progressive U.S. Democrats fight to expand influence with Tuesday primaries
WASHINGTON, June 23 (Reuters) - New York state holds primary elections on Tuesday to determine the fate of progressive Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other U.S. House members, testing the strength of the Democratic Party's left wing after moderate Joe Biden became the presumptive presidential nominee.
Ocasio-Cortez, the 30-year-old progressive firebrand better known as AOC, faces a challenge in her New York City district from former CNBC television anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, 44, backed by the conservative-leaning U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Tuesday's nominating contests in New York, Kentucky and four other states also feature progressives challenging older, establishment Democrats at a time of a national reckoning with racial injustice following the May 25 death of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, while in Minneapolis police custody.
In a congressional district neighboring Ocasio-Cortez's, Jamaal Bowman, 44, a former teacher, is mounting a strong challenge to Representative Eliot Engel, a 31-year House veteran who chairs the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee.
Progressive Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as well as Ocasio-Cortez have endorsed Bowman, while Democratic Party stalwarts, such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the party's 2016 presidential nominee, have rallied around Engel.
The progressive movement suffered setbacks at the national level earlier this year when former Vice President Joe Biden won the party's race to take on President Donald Trump in November's election, with dominant wins over Warren and Sanders in the state-by-state nominating contests.
The left wing of the Democratic Party is now taking its battle to down-ballot primary races with new energy and purpose, bolstered by growing calls for ending racial injustice and inequality in the aftermath of Floyd's death.
House Democrats - progressives and moderates - are expected to band together later this week when they vote to pass sweeping legislation on police practices. But there appeared to be little support in Congress for calls to "defund" police departments, as some on the left sought.
SPIRITED KENTUCKY CONTEST
In Kentucky's primaries, progressive Charles Booker, an African-American state legislator, is waging an unexpectedly spirited challenge to Amy McGrath, an ex-fighter pilot, in the race to become the Democratic candidate to face Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on Nov. 3.
Like Engel, McGrath is backed by the party establishment. But the recent Black Lives Matter protests have elevated the candidacy of Booker.
Nowhere was that more apparent than when Warren, who supported McGrath in her failed bid for a U.S. House of Representatives seat in 2018 and initially in her Senate candidacy, switched allegiance to Booker.
"Things are changing quickly here," said Dewey Clayton, political scientist at the University of Louisville.
In New York, the moderate-progressive competition is showcased in yet another primary race, where Representative Carolyn Maloney aims for a 15th two-year term in the House.
The 74-year-old Maloney faces a challenge from the left by 36-year-old Suraj Patel, who worked in commercial real estate and as a campaign aide to former President Barack Obama.
Patel failed in 2018 to unseat Maloney and is again running for Congress telling voters he is "trying to help change the world" with progressive vows such as "debt-free college."
Both New York and Kentucky have encouraged mail-in balloting as a safe alternative to in-person voting during the coronavirus pandemic, prompting record numbers of absentee ballot requests.
(Reporting by Richard Cowan; Additional reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Soyoung Kim and Peter Cooney)