Two years after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s shocking upset, progressives are plotting to shake up New York’s congressional delegation again in Tuesday’s primaries.
While Rep. Eliot Engel’s (D-N.Y.) race represents their best shot to oust another incumbent, nearly every sitting House Democrat in New York City and its suburbs faces some level of threat from the left. And progressive candidates are in contention to win a pair of open seats.
“This is literally the best opportunity in the United States of America to elect a progressive to Congress,” said Mondaire Jones, a top candidate to replace retiring Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), of his race in the northern New York City suburbs. “We can’t think about winning the presidency if we don’t build a bench of progressive candidates.”
Only a handful of the seats on the ballot Tuesday are truly competitive. Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal challenging Engel, is seen as the one best equipped to take down a sitting member, following weeks of missteps by the House Foreign Affairs Committee chief.
“Three years ago, when we challenged [then-House Democratic Caucus Chair Joe] Crowley, everyone told us we were crazy, and it was impossible. Lots of people told us the same thing about Engel,” said Waleed Shahid, Justice Democrats’ communications director, of their endorsed candidate, Bowman. “You never know how vulnerable someone is until you’re actually campaigning.”
The races have made Tuesday’s New York primaries the latest battlefield in a Democratic showdown between its liberal old guard and progressive upstarts aiming to pull the party to the left. Crowley’s defeat in 2018, as well as close calls in other races, sent a warning flare to senior Democrats like Reps. Carolyn Maloney and Jerry Nadler — who both hold key gavels in the House — who feared they could be next. But others, like Engel and Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.), were slower to ramp up their campaigns.
Clarke is perhaps the most endangered incumbent after Engel. The Brooklyn Democrat faces a rematch with progressive challenger Adem Bunkeddeko, who lost to Clarke by fewer than 2,000 votes in 2018. Bunkeddeko, a housing advocate, has raised close to $440,000 by June. Though he’s picked up few notable endorsements, Clarke has still outraised him by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.
“She’s taking this race very, very seriously,” said Krysten Copeland, campaign spokesperson for Clarke. “Last time around, she looked into some of the criticism, understood it and decided, ‘There are some things I can do better.’ … She does not lead with ego at all.”
In a show of force for the left, Bunkeddeko and Bowman each picked up a coveted New York Times endorsement, which backed a progressive slate across a handful of competitive primaries.
Bunkeddeko has forcefully pushed back on the idea that Clarke has changed in a meaningful way, calling her recent actions “window dressing during the campaign season.”
“The analogy I think that’s most apt here is: It’s like a patient that didn’t have a pulse is now comatose,” he said in an interview.
But unlike in 2018, Bunkeddeko won’t get a one-on-one shot against Clarke. There are three other candidates on the ballot in the Brooklyn district, including City Council Member Chaim Deutsch, a self-described conservative Democrat who is running an under-the-radar campaign especially targeted toward the district’s Orthodox Jewish community in Crown Heights.
Ocasio-Cortez, too, has a well-funded primary challenger — as does moderate Democratic Rep. Tom Suozzi on Long Island — though neither race is expected to be as competitive.
In the two open seats, the progressive-endorsed candidates are struggling to break free in crowded primaries, complicating what might have otherwise been easy pickups for the left.
In the Bronx-based 15th District, a dozen candidates are on the ballot to replace retiring Rep. José Serrano in the bluest district in the country. But the fractured field has led many to worry that City Council Member Rubén Díaz Sr., a Bronx political mainstay, could slip through and win the nomination.
Díaz, who is the father of the popular Bronx Borough President Rubén Díaz Jr., has a long history of homophobic comments and has also publicly voiced his support for President Donald Trump. Díaz’s campaign could not be reached for comment.
“This was predictable. From day one, I have been sounding the alarm about the threat of Rubén Díaz Sr.,” said City Council Member Ritchie Torres, another leading candidate in the race, who expressed frustration with the large field. “Instead of taking those concerns seriously, there are some self-proclaimed progressive individuals and institutions that chose to unwittingly aid the election of Rubén Díaz Sr.”
Torres has picked up the backing of the political arms of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the House LGBT Caucus, but he is far from the only credible candidate in the race.
State Assemblymember Michael Blake is running with the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus PAC. The field also includes former City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito and community organizer Samelys López, who has the backing of both Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Bernie Sanders.
In a late-May poll from Data for Progress — a progressive polling firm that has also conducted surveys for Bowman — Díaz Sr. and Torres were the only candidates to break double-digits, with Díaz Sr. at 22 percent and Torres at 20 percent. A wave of outside spending has also flooded into the race, with much of it has been anti-Díaz Sr. or pro-Torres.
Diaz Sr. “has a real shot,” said Sean McElwee, a Data for Progress co-founder. “The poll did wake up a lot of people and … there started to be pretty big” outside spending after it, he noted.
López rejected the notion of a divided liberal vote, saying she was the true progressive in the race. “I don’t think it’s the Congressional Progressive Caucus that’s going to decide this race. I don’t think it’s consultants that are going to decide it,” she said. “There’s a lot of outside money that’s coming into this district, telling people here how to vote. And I feel like that is incredibly paternalistic.”
Mark-Viverito also said she was pressured to drop out — which would consolidate the field against Díaz Sr. But she refused, saying outside interests were trying to play kingmakers by “acting very imperialistic and colonialistic.”
In the affluent suburbs north of the city, a competitive primary in the 17th District to replace the retiring Lowey has also declined to show a clear frontrunner.
National and local progressives have rallied around Jones, who is also the beneficiary of the first-ever independent expenditure from the political wing of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
But the competitive field also includes New York Assemblymember David Buchwald, self-funding attorney Adam Schleifer, Obama-era Defense Department official Evelyn Farkas, former NARAL Pro-Choice America Chair Allison Fine and state Sen. David Carlucci.
Preventing a Carlucci victory is of particular importance for progressives. He was formerly a member of the Independent Democratic Conference in the state Senate, which effectively turned over control of the chamber to Republicans. Most former IDC members were wiped out by liberal primary challengers in 2018.
Unlike the other open seat, prominent progressives have united behind Jones, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez — though not Justice Democrats, the insurgent group that propelled Ocasio-Cortez to victory in 2018, which has focused instead on head-to-head matchups. Still, a recent Data for Progress poll in the district showed a split field.
EMILY’s List is backing Farkas, but progressives have tried to tar her as too moderate, pointing to donations she has garnered from GOP defense officials like former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who served as President Barack Obama’s defense secretary.
“It’s not helpful if we go so far to the left that it’s considered ‘bad’ to have Republican support,” she said. “Then we will get nothing done in Congress, and we will only end up further dividing our country.”