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Jamaal Bowman’s Primary Loss
0:00 / 27:09
July 5, 2024

On June 25th, New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman lost his primary election to George Latimer, a longtime Democratic Westchester County politician. The race attracted national attention because of the unprecedented role played by the Israel-advocacy group AIPAC: The lobby’s super PAC spent $14.5 million on television ads attacking Bowman, while AIPAC donors contributed about $2.5 million to Latimer’s campaign. Bowman’s loss marked a blow for the project of electing leftists to federal office, and the result particularly stung for the pro-Palestine movement; one of the most outspoken Democratic critics of Israel’s war on Gaza will now be replaced by someone who won’t even rebuke Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which puts him well to the right of Joe Biden.

On this episode of On the Nose, senior reporter Alex Kane is joined by Intercept DC bureau chief Ryan Grim and former Justice Democrats spokesperson Waleed Shahid to discuss the meaning of Bowman’s loss, AIPAC’s electoral strategy, and the future of the movement to elect leftist Democrats.

Thanks to guest producer Will Smith and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”

Articles Mentioned and Further Reading:

The Road Not Taken: Hard Truths about Jamaal Bowman’s Loss,” Micah Sifry, The Connector

What the Left Can Learn From Jamaal Bowman’s Loss,” Waleed Shahid, The Nation

“A Trip to Israel Changed Jamaal Bowman’s Worldview—And Could Cost Him His Re-election,” Calder McHugh, Politico


Alex Kane: Hello, and welcome to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents Podcast. I’m Alex Kane, your host today and the senior reporter for Jewish Currents. On June 25, Congressman Jamaal Bowman, a New York Democrat representing southern Westchester County and slices of the Northern Bronx, lost his primary election to George Latimer, a longtime Westchester politician. The race attracted national attention because of the outsized role that AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, played in the election. AIPAC’s Super PAC spent $14.5 million on television ads, a historic sum that blanketed the district with ads attacking Bowman, and AIPAC donors contributed an extra $2.5 million to Latimer’s campaign. Bowman’s loss marked a blow for the project of electing leftists to federal office and particularly stung for the Palestinian rights movement. One of the most outspoken Democrats against Israel’s war on Gaza will now be replaced by someone who won’t even criticize Benjamin Netanyahu, putting Latimer to the right of even Joe Biden.

So yeah, we’re gonna be digging into the implications of Bowman’s loss with two guests: Ryan Grim and Waleed Shahid. Ryan is the DC bureau chief at The Intercept and the author of the book, The Squad: AOC and the Hope of a Political Revolution. Waleed is the former spokesperson for Justice Democrats and a former senior adviser to representatives Bowman and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. Thanks so much for coming on the show.

Ryan Grim: Thanks for having me.

Waleed Shahid: Thanks for having me.

AK: Before we get into the actual Bowman loss last month, I wanted to take a step back and look at how Bowman first got into office and what his winning at the time in 2020 signified.

RG: Waleed, you worked on that race, right?

SH: We knew that Eliot Engel was vulnerable because we did a poll in 2019 that showed that he didn’t have very high favorables. Most voters would support an alternative, and there was already a lingering notion (you could say a vibe) that he was an absent congressman who was old and outdated. And Jamaal Bowman was nominated to run through the Justice Democrats website by education justice advocates and organizers. He was recruited by JD, and his primary campaign didn’t really catch fire until there was a story that came out in The Atlantic about how Eliot Engel had spent COVID in Maryland and had not stepped foot in the district. New Rochelle is in the district, which was the epicenter of the COVID pandemic in the United States in March. Eliot Engel had not been back and had been falsely advertising that he was in the district handing out masks, and canned food, and this and that.

A few weeks after that, Eliot Engel, in the midst of the George Floyd uprisings, had a hot-mic moment in which he said—he was trying to speak at a press conference with a bunch of Black and Latino elected officials about racial justice. There was no speaking time for him, and he was caught on the mic saying if “I didn’t have a primary I wouldn’t care,” which reinforced the message that he was out of touch and was only present in the district because of his primary election. And it was a liberal-left coalition that elected Bowman; lots of organizations were involved, including Indivisible, Justice Democrats, Working Families Party, The Jewish Vote (which is a conglomeration of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice, IfNotNow, JVP, and others). And he was really brought into power on the winds of change of the 2020 campaigns of Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, but also, most importantly, the George Floyd uprisings. And foreign policy did play a role in the election. DMFI—that was the first major campaign that the Democratic majority for Israel spent millions of dollars to try to stop Bowman, but in their own words, Eliot Engel was the reason why they weren’t able to win; he was a flawed candidate and wasn’t able to bring them across the finish line.

RG: This was a real particular moment in time, just to lift up what Waleed said about the George Floyd uprisings. If you think about the end of this cycle, the entire Hudson Valley and beyond was represented at that point by three Black men. Mondaire Jones, who won that cycle, Antonio Delgado, and Jamaal Bowman. Just kind of a remarkable turn of events and flipping identity politics on its head, but it kind of required the uprisings of summer of 2020 to bring that left-liberal coalition together, and I think Bowman was probably kind of stunned a little bit at how quickly the liberal part of that coalition had moved on from racial justice as an animating concern. Because Latimer was putting a racially tone-deaf foot in his mouth constantly (to put it gently) throughout the campaign, and a lot of the voters just seemed to shrug it off in ways that they really would not have in 2020.

But I think DMFI’s roll was key there, because there’s a real bookend here in the sense that AIPAC watched DMFI lose this race and, I think, thought to themselves: Okay, we actually, do need to think about getting into the super PAC game ourselves. Like, we can’t just leave this to DMFI, because DMFI was acting as the sort of AIPAC, quasi-official super PAC, while AIPAC still struggled with the idea of breaking all the way into the super PAC game. And then, it was the next cycle, 2022, that AIPAC launched its United Democracy Project, the odd name of their super PAC. If you remember, DMFI ran an ad against Bowman hitting him for some unpaid parking tickets, or like, I think he had like a $1,200 tax bill from 10 years earlier that he had since paid off. It sounded awful. It was like these folks from out of the district, a bunch of white people, are coming in here and attacking a working-class Black man because he had some unpaid taxes from like 10 years ago that he’s since had paid back. And it just backfired badly. Like if you’re going to spend money on attack ads, your attack ads need to land. Instead, they rebounded and hurt Engel and helped Bowman, because it made him more sympathetic, because like: Oh, this guy’s like us. It would be nice to have somebody in Congress who understands the struggles of average working people. And DMFI helped make that case for them.

So I think AIPAC saw that and was like, well, we can do better than this, like this is amateur hour over here. And then, in May of 2021, when the previous Gaza War broke out, you had Jamaal Bowman going to the floor, you had Summer Lee going into the floor, you had well over a dozen Democrats taking up this hour of time on the House floor, organized by Mark Pocan, denouncing the Israeli attack on Gaza. And after that, AIPAC talked publicly (or at least privately/publicly) saying like: Okay, this is getting out of hand, we’ve never had this many Democrats on the floor—because it wasn’t just the Squad that was down on the floor; it was the Squad that was then giving confidence to a bunch of other Democrats to come out and say: This bombing needs to stop. And I think it was the combination of those two things that led AIPAC to say: We need to get involved in the race.

AK: Thanks for bringing up Palestine and Israel, because that’s really what we want to focus on here. I mean, Bowman, he came into office with a relatively robust engagement on Palestine, but like, it was on the left edge of J Street—so very supportive of Israel’s right to defend itself. He famously voted to fund the Iron Dome anti-rocket system, which was a very controversial vote on the left. He did endorse conditions on military aid but was really trying to walk this fine line between his Jewish constituents, his more liberal constituents, and the movement—the progressive movement and the Palestinian rights movement, in particular—that he also was listening to and took seriously.

And then, of course, after October 7, Bowman’s rhetoric, I think, really shifted. He said what Israel is doing in Gaza is a genocide; Israel is an apartheid state. That obviously attracted the attention of AIPAC, although it seems like AIPAC was already mobilized to try to take him out before that. What do you think explains the amount of money that AIPAC spent in this race? Was it decisive in his loss? You know, there are others that say that this seat was lost well before these millions started hitting the airwaves. Micah Sifry, who has a Substack and was a liberal Jewish supporter of Bowman, wrote recently that Jamal didn’t do his job well enough, he didn’t like having to raise money, he didn’t like doing retail politics, basically saying it’s not just AIPAC. How decisive was AIPAC’s role in this loss?

SH: Micah is someone I know and I’ve talked to a fair amount in the 2020 race. And Micah was always skeptical, extremely skeptical, that Jamal could beat Engel at all because he didn’t feel like there was a good argument for Engel, that Engel had done a good job catering to the Democratic base in Westchester and the Bronx after Trump was elected, famously did not shake the hand of President Trump during the State of the Union. And there’s an orbit of advisory-type people in Bowman’s ear who are like: You need to cater as much to the center/right wing of J Street as possible, which I think was never fully going to happen because of who Jamal is. And after Jamal attended J Street’s own trip to visit Israel in the West Bank, I think he did an act of moral—what I call moral witness—which was when he witnessed the conditions that Palestinians face in Israel and in the West Bank, I think Jamal was horrified. And it was very different from some of the conversations he had been having with his constituents who did not agree with them on Israel, whether they were more J Street or AIPAC affiliated. I think what he was hearing in the district and what he saw himself were extremely misaligned, and that deeply troubled him.

RG: Yeah, it’s just it’s a huge irony that it was J Street that organized that trip, because I think his trip to Israel with J Street is hugely underappreciated in his political and moral development. I’m glad Waleed raised that. He came back changed. He was already obviously sympathetic to the idea of Palestinian rights, but I think Waleed put it exactly right: that to see it with his own eyes and then to compare what he was being told about it by some people back in the district was a rupture of sorts. And it wasn’t one that he was willing to patch up for political reasons.

AK: How do you think the AIPAC spending interacts with all of these other factors? It seems like the loss was overdetermined now that we’re looking back at it. I mean, there was a massive mobilization of Jewish voters, including some Jewish voters who were registered as Republican. And there’s no law that says Republicans Jews can’t re-register as Democrats, so there’s nothing nefarious there. But in general, there was a massive mobilization of Jewish voters, including Jewish Democrats, and they turned out to be 24% of all total votes cast, according to the group that drove Jewish voter turnout in the race. There was also redistricting, which made his district a little bit whiter and wealthier. There was Bowman pulling the fire alarm in Congress, there was the vote against the standalone infrastructure bill. And then there was Latimer being a somewhat popular and known quantity in Westchester.

RG: Well, the redistricting is a key point. If it’s districted (and Waleed probably knows these numbers a little bit better than me), but if the district lines are drawn the same way that they were in 2020, even with the AIPAC spending, depending on turnout, you may have still seen a Bowman victory. I don’t know. Now, why redistricting went the way it did is also about power. Jamaal clearly lost out, and Latimer and his supporters won out, and you can’t take money and power out of that question, either. But Waleed, if this race were run in the 2020 lines, like it was against Eliot Engel, what’s your sense of what it looks like?

SH: I think it would have been a lot closer. I mean, I watched a lot of MSNBC and CNN on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday before Biden’s debate took over as the number one story, and so many journalists and pundits were pouring cold water that AIPAC had anything to do with Bowman’s loss. It was all about the fire alarm; it was all because Bowman had used escalated rhetoric; it was all about how the Squad’s politics are too adversarial to Democrats, blah, blah, blah. And some journalists and pundits were saying it was antisemitic to bring up AIPAC’s money as one of the leading factors in this race, which I think is really wrong. There would be no George Latimer candidacy or money for George Latimer’s candidacy unless Bowman had a policy disagreement with AIPAC on Israel.

To me, when I was watching all the punditry on broadcast media, it was as if the substance of the policy disagreement between Bowman and AIPAC/Latimer did not matter at all. To me, that’s a total misreading of the situation. The only reason Bowman was primaried was because of his position on Israel and because he’s a prominent Black Democrat with a media presence who is a threat to AIPAC’s agenda, as someone representing a young generation of Democrats who have disagreed with AIPAC and the Democratic Party establishment. It was—Jamaal didn’t win by that much in 2022, the district became much more white and wealthy in 2022. I don’t think it’s only about Israel. I think part of it is the backlash to the left and Black Lives Matter that we talked about earlier. But certainly, you have to talk about the fact that this is the most amount of money ever spent on a Democratic primary, and to not talk about that does a disservice to any analysis of the situation.

RG: It’s also insulting to AIPAC, I think. Like how stupid do you think AIPAC is? AIPAC has a lot of money, but it is still a limited amount of money, and they have a lot of different races that they want to play in, whether it’s Susheela Jayapal in Portland or Cori Bush in St. Louis, and they want to make decisions about how they spend their money in the way that is most efficient and effective for their operation. And so, to suggest that they would just spend close to $20 million for no reason, because they’re morons, is just a bizarre accusation against AIPAC. Like they have polls, they have strategists, they have smart operatives—they know what they’re doing. They spent that money for a reason, not just because it made them feel good to drop it on Bowman’s head.

AK: Do you think there were any models—I don’t know if we can say pioneered, but at the very least used during the Bowman race—that might be models for the future about how to counteract AIPAC spending? Obviously, it’s probably impossible for any organization to go dollar-for-dollar with AIPAC. I mean, there’s no group on the left that has $17 million to spend. That’s just not going to happen. But Bowman had Justice Democrats’ super PAC spending money on their own TV ads. Then there was joint fundraising where Rashida Tlaib was fundraising for Bowman. I believe AOC and Bernie Sanders were sending out their own emails to their own lists to raise money for Bowman. Were any of these models new, and even if they weren’t new, do you think that these are potential paths to try to, at the very least, limit the impact of AIPAC spending by spending the left’s own money?

RG: What really helped Bowman and also Summer Lee and some others was the broad liberal-left coalition that Waleed was talking about, which included groups like Indivisible and J Street. J Street, being a leading part of that coalition really helped both Summer Lee and Bowman. And J Street—not just financially, because they were able to put together several million dollars, that that’s not nothing. Because there’s a threshold issue in campaigns, it’s like, it’s nice to have $17 million, but you don’t necessarily need $17 million to combat $17 million. If you can come in with $3 or 4 million, then at least people are going to see your message and have a chance to hear it. But the Squad and Bernie and that whole world have not really worked together in the way that they potentially could. Bernie Sanders, for instance, is sitting on $9 million cash on hand and has basically no election in Vermont, like he’s gonna waltz to reelection. There’s nothing that would stop him from just dropping $3 million of that in St. Louis. Rasheeda Tlaib, I think, put half a million dollars into Bowman’s race but has been able to raise an enormous amount of money and could spend plenty more of it. AOC, as well—it’s hard for candidates because they’re always nervous that they might need it, and they don’t want to make themselves vulnerable. But there has to be more that the coalition and the members of Congress themselves can do collectively to multiply their efforts in coming up with enough money to at least have a threshold chance of fighting back.

AK: Waleed, what you were saying earlier reminded me of something that I found striking, which is that poll after poll shows Democratic voters support a ceasefire in Gaza; that they’re basically opposed to the Biden administration’s policy of giving unconditional support to Israel. In this race, an Emerson poll even showed (in a poll only of the 16th congressional district) that half of Democratic primary voters thought the US government was spending too much on aid to Israel, and that 43% were less inclined to support a member of Congress who opposes a ceasefire in Gaza. And yet, Bowman lost by a lot. What do you think explains the gap between public opinion on Israel and Gaza and the results of this primary? Is it simply that people are not voting on Gaza?

SH: I don’t think people most people were voting on Gaza. Like I think it’s also one of those things where the people who turned out in an election were disproportionately the people who are anti-Bowman than the people who are pro-Bowman. And you can see that in the turnout numbers comparing the Bronx and some of the Northern Westchester suburbs. But ultimately, this election was about democracy, and the majority of Democrats in this district and around the country disagree with AIPAC and Latimer’s position, but that was not the referendum of the race. This election was essentially about, like most of the ads were about how Bowman had voted against Biden’s infrastructure package in order to gain leverage to pass the IRA. I don’t think the Bowman campaign was able to reframe what that vote was about in the eyes of voters.

But my sense of what I heard from people who are knocking on doors, was like, the fire alarm, Israel, that didn’t come up as much as things that voters would say, which is: I heard he voted against Biden, I heard he doesn’t like Biden. And I think that’s like, for any progressive who challenges the President (well, let alone the irony of all the people who have challenged the president since Tuesday). That was what AIPAC tried to make the election about in their ads—not about Israel—and I think that was a successful strategy on their part, while Bowman tried to make the Election largely about who AIPAC’s money is, which is Republican money. And I think maybe we were unable to land some of the punches on Latimer himself, focusing on his donors and backers instead.

RG: Yeah, I think Latimer’s name ID and reputation among primary voters in the district made it really hard for those punches to land. Because you’d say: Okay, yes, it is clear that this AIPAC money is coming from Republicans, and Republicans are trying to lift Latimer up in this primary. But then they’d be like: Oh, wait, but it’s, but it’s George Latimer, we’ve known him for decades—he’s a Democrat. And so, it’s much easier to land that punch on a more obscure Democrat, like Summer Lee was able to in her primary, for instance. Yeah, his connections and his roots in the district played a role because you only have tens of thousands of voters.

AK: Ryan, just to your point, the Bowman campaign and his allies tried to paint Latimer as a racist. And I understand the strategy, and I understand Bowman was trying to mobilize his Black voter base, but I think it’s really hard to paint George Latimer as a racist. Of course, I agree that he put his foot in his mouth on racial issues, you know, saying that Bowman’s constituency was in Dearborn, Michigan, or he had an ethnic benefit, because he’s Black. But Latimer, as you said, is well known. I mean, he cut into Bowman’s Black and Latino support.

RG: Yeah. And I think Bowman wasn’t just trying to cut into—or wasn’t just trying to galvanize his black voting base. But if he was going back to the 2020 understanding of American politics (and particularly Democratic primary politics), that works with your white liberal base, too, but it didn’t work with the white liberal base against Latimer the way that it did against Eliot Engel.

AK: What does this Bowman race tell us about AIPAC’s strategy and how it approaches these races? And also, do you think the Cori Bush race coming up next month is going to look any different? Or might we expect the same result—a Bush loss because of AIPAC spending amplifying her vulnerabilities?

SH: I think AIPAC’s strategy is pretty similar to Justice Democrats’ strategy, which is to pick a handful of races. I mean, they obviously are playing in way more races because they have more money, but the symbolic victory that sends a sign to the media and to the party about which way Democratic primary voters are swinging on—for Justice Democrats it’s progressive politics; for AIPAC, it’s pro-Israel politics—it’s the same strategy, same tactic. Mark Mellman, who’s now with AIPAC, but he has said something similar, which is like, “We are trying to do what Emily’s List did to the Democratic Party,” which is to make the Democratic Party a pro-Israel party forever. If they can show that they were able to knock out or elect a handful of people against progressives every year, that’s what they’re gonna do.

She [Cori Bush] released her first 30-second TV ad today, and in that ad, she very clearly articulates—she makes the entire ad about abortion and how she has worked with Joe Biden, and that her opponent, Wesley Bell, worked for an anti-choice Republican and was the campaign manager for an anti-choice Republican. Cori’s strategy seems to not be focused as much on AIPAC right now. It’s more focused on defining her and defining this election about abortion, essentially. We’ll see what happens. Obviously, Cori’s district is pretty different than Jamaal’s district; it’s probably a little bit more similar to Summer Lee’s district. I think Cori is coming in with better numbers than Jamaal did. But you know, AIPAC hasn’t fully unleashed their torrent of negative attack ads on her, and we’ll see what happens. But she definitely is coming in with a stronger chance than Bowman was.

AK: It’s too early to tell whether the Bowman defeat was just an isolated instance, or whether it holds broader implications for the project of electing leftist Democrats. I mean, is that project in peril, or is it too early to say?

SH: I think that the project of left electoral politics is definitely under threat, but it’s not just like Justice Democrats the left, I think this affects also the Congressional Progressive Caucus, because if you can knock out a Bowman or try to knock out a Cori Bush—if, let’s say, a Pramila Jayapal or Ayanna Pressley runs for Senate at some point, AIPAC will come after them and try to not make them the next senators from their state. Same with Ilhan Omar in Minnesota or whatever. Like a lot of these—this is much bigger than just these house primaries, and it sends a chilling effect to any poor soul who is thinking about running in a Democratic primary, what they tweet out about or what they put on their website about Israel/Palestine politics. I think there’s a lot more infrastructure that needs to be built. Like honestly, I think a lot of the supporters and donors in 2020 for people like Jessica Cisneros, and Jamaal Bowman, and Cori Bush, frankly were neutral this time around. And I think there needs to be much more infrastructure built and much more coalitions built about how the threat against Bowman and Bush is a threat against many other people beyond just Justice Democrats. And yeah, I don’t know. When it comes to building the kind of infrastructure that AIPAC has in specific congressional districts, whether it’s donor networks, or membership organizations, or ties with synagogues and churches and religious institutions—those are the kinds of pieces of infrastructure that I don’t think are fully there on the progressive left or in the Palestinian human rights movement but are slowly being created over time because it’s a younger and less-resourced piece of the infrastructure.

AK: Well, that does it. Thanks so much for listening to On the Nose. If you like the show, please rate us on your podcast apps. And as always, check out the rest of Jewish Currents’ work on JewishCurrents.org and subscribe to the magazine. We’ll see you next time. Thanks.

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