Bowman primary reignites civil war among Democrats

Eight years after the 2016 election, Democrats are reliving the infamous Clinton-Sanders battle — this time in the race for New York’s 16th Congressional District.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.), a “squad” member favored by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), is facing a rocky path to reelection against Westchester County Executive George Latimer, a centrist who earned Hillary Clinton’s support this week.

The June 25 primary is unearthing old rivalries in a party facing an identity crisis over Israel in a part of the state that many Jews call home.

“This primary is more about the war in Gaza than anything else,” said Doug Gordon, a Democratic consultant and co-founder of UpShift Strategies.

The anxiety is all too familiar. The progressive-moderate clash has reemerged in other contests since Sanders challenged Clinton in the cycle that led to former President Trump winning the White House. Activist Jessica Cisneros’s fraught attempt to unseat Clinton-backed Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar (D) exposed the left-center divide, as did Sanders-approved Nina Turner’s unsuccessful challenge to Rep. Shontel Brown (D) in Ohio.

The Westchester-Bronx district is now in the spotlight. And progressives are hoping for a miracle.

There’s plenty of anger in both camps. Bowman has repeatedly suggested Latimer is racist, while Latimer has accused Bowman of aligning with ultra-right-wing Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) on a key vote. Both have sought to paint the other as ineffective and wrong for the blue district.

On Wednesday, after Clinton threw her weight behind Latimer, old wounds were reexposed.

“With Trump on the ballot, we need strong, principled Democrats in Congress more than ever,” Clinton wrote in a post on the social platform X. “In Congress, @LatimerforNY will protect abortion rights, stand up to the NRA, and fight for President Biden’s agenda—just like he’s always done.”

An endorsement from the former first lady — who represented New York in the Senate — is now being tested. Observers say it sent a signal about the ideological importance of the race for Democrats.

As Democrats look to recapture the House, the seat is not vulnerable to the GOP. But centrists and progressives are likely to use the winner as a sign of the direction of the party for 2024 and beyond. Clinton’s support shows a desire among some Democrats for the party to embrace its more moderate wing.

Bowman, who’s trailing in recent polls, downplayed her decision.

“I definitely wouldn’t call that a major endorsement,” Bowman said in an appearance on CNN, before touting his support from Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.). Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) is also hosting a rally with Sanders for Bowman just before election day.

One progressive Bowman can’t count on for support is former Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.), who’s running in the neighboring district after briefly leaving Congress. Jones lent his backing to Latimer in a surprise endorsement, causing a stir among liberals who saw it as a flat out backstab.

“You can’t convince voters you’ll stand up for them when they can see so many examples of you trading in your spine,” said one progressive strategist who’s worked on New York campaigns, referring to Jones.

“This is coming from a guy who went and door-knocked for Mondaire when he first ran,” the strategist said. “I feel nothing but regret for doing it.”

Still, some Democrats believe that the Sanders-Clinton framework is getting near its expiration date — even as both contenders have welcomed those figures’ support in the final weeks of the campaign.

“I think looking through the prism of 2016 is a bit over simplistic,” said Gordon. “The party and the world around it has changed a lot in the last eight years. Clinton and Sanders are not the vote-drivers they once were,” he said.

Gordon and other operatives say the bigger test will be how voters view their stances on Israel at the ballot box. Foreign policy has dominated the race after the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas forced a reckoning in American politics over the Middle East. It raised new questions about Israel and the United States’s role in its funding and functioning into the forefront.

The 16th Congressional District is heavily populated with Jewish constituents, but it’s also home to Arab residents who share pro-Palestinian sentiments.

Latimer is seen as a staunch defender of Israel, having visited the country last year. His roster of support includes the country’s top pro-Israel groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its affiliated super PAC, the United Democracy Project (UDP).

The firmness of his support from Israel allies has been the biggest point of frustration for progressives, who take issue with funding AIPAC and UDP receive from Republican donors.

“Sadly, it appears the real story here is the amount of campaign spending by outside groups to oust Bowman from his seat,” said Tim Black, a pro-Sanders progressive commentator and activist.

Bowman has expressed solidarity with Palestinians. He often publicly condemns the Israeli government and has doubled down on critiques of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and military leaders as the war continues.

“Bowman’s Gaza comments placed a huge target on his back and the response has been damning and effective,” Black said.

“Attack ads work,” he added. “That’s the true story in the Latimer race.”

Bowman and grassroots groups like Justice Democrats and the Working Families Party have targeted Latimer’s pro-Israel posture as a way to differentiate him from his challenger, especially around their views on a ceasefire.

“Unfortunately, my opponent and secretary Clinton do not support a permanent cease-fire,” Bowman said in his CNN appearance. “They support Benjamin Netanyahu, and they support billions of dollars of our money going to Israel and Netanyahu for an unjust attack on civilians in Gaza vs. those billions coming here to our district.”

He called Latimer and Clinton “out of touch.”

Just more than a week before primary day, polling shows Bowman may be the candidate slightly more out of touch with his constituents. A recent poll taken by Emerson College and The Hill gives Latimer the advantage, earning a double-digit lead over the former middle school principal.

The survey shows Latimer at 48 percent support, compared to Bowman’s 31 percent.

“We’re coming down to the wire,” said Black, noting the closeness of the race in the home stretch.

Black is among progressive voices who are sympathetic to Bowman but have nonetheless expressed concern about his chances. They see Latimer’s funding as his biggest asset and worry Bowman may not be able to catch up.

“It’s disconcerting how many activists have pushed for Bowman to stand up for Palestinians, but as of yet, as of now, it doesn’t seem all the noise has turned into financial support and that’s why Bowman may lose,” Black said.

“He fought the good fight, but it will require money to win it.”

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