Left eyes huge night in NY, Kentucky primaries

Expectations on the left are rising for what could be a huge night of victories Tuesday in separate primaries in Kentucky and New York.

In Kentucky, progressives believe state Rep. Charles Booker has a strong chance of defeating centrist Amy McGrath, who had been the heavy favorite and has a huge cash advantage. The winner of that primary will be the Democratic nominee against Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

Meanwhile in New York, Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal who has won support from some of the progressive movement’s biggest names, is now the favorite to unseat Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, in New York’s 16th District.

Just north of there, in New York’s 17th District, a recent poll showed another progressive, Mondaire Jones, opening up a wide lead in the Democratic primary to succeed retiring Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.).

“If you see all three of them win, it’ll be like lightning struck a house on fire in the middle of an earthquake,” said Neil Sroka, the communications director for the progressive political action committee Democracy for America, which has endorsed Bowman, Jones and Booker in their respective primaries.

Polls released last week showed all three candidates leading the pack in their races. One survey fielded by the progressive think tank Data for Progress showed Bowman opening up a 10-point lead over Engel ahead of the primary, while another poll sponsored by the group found Booker leading McGrath by 8 points in Kentucky.

Meanwhile, the Democratic firm Public Policy Polling showed Jones with an 11-point advantage over his two closest rivals, Evelyn Farkas and Adam Schleifer.

Taken together, the recent surge in the polls for progressives, at a time of nationwide protests against racial injustice and police brutality, raises the possibility that Tuesday could be one of their best chances of the 2020 election cycle to demonstrate their emerging influence in the Democratic Party.

Progressives say the mere fact that their candidates are considered competitive in races that would have easily been won by more moderate and establishment-backed candidates a few years ago is a testament to their growing influence in the Democratic Party.

The expansion of that influence is perhaps most pronounced in the districts in and around New York City. If Bowman knocks off Engel in Tuesday’s primary, it will be the second time in two years that a longtime Democratic incumbent in New York is ousted by a younger, more progressive challenger.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) stunned the political world in 2018 when she defeated House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.). That win portended progressive victories in other House districts across the country and prompted an even more aggressive push by liberals to challenge sitting Democrats in 2020.

Wins in these races would provide progressives with momentum after experiencing mixed results so far this year.

Marie Newman, a progressive challenger in Illinois, scored one of the biggest wins for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party when she ousted Rep. Dan Lipinski (Ill.), one of the few remaining conservative Democrats, in a primary in March. And in Nebraska, Kara Eastman easily won the House primary in the state’s 2nd District. Both candidates previously ran for those seats in 2018.

However, progressives have come up short in other races this year. Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old immigration attorney backed by the progressive group Justice Democrats, lost to incumbent Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas). Another Justice Democrats–backed challenger, Morgan Harper, came up short in her bid to unseat Rep. Joyce Beatty (D-Ohio).

That’s not to mention Sens. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) ultimately unsuccessful bids for the Democratic presidential nomination.

“If you’re talking about win percentages, to say it’s a mixed bag is kind,” said Jonathan Tasini, a progressive strategist and former national surrogate for Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign.

“We’ve lost a whole lot more than we won,” he added. “Assuming Bowman wins or Booker wins or even if all three of them win, that’s a very small percentage.”

Tasini blamed progressives for too easily falling for candidates who “look good on paper in terms of their policy positions, but they’re mediocre to poor candidates.”

But Tuesday’s primaries may tell a different story for progressives, Tasini added.

“Booker and Bowman are forget about where they are on the spectrum — they’re good candidates,” he said. “I think too often, the progressive movement is willing to wrap their arms around people who channel their anger at the establishment without understanding whether those people can actually run good races and are good candidates.”

Multiple Democratic strategists and operatives also said that the current political moment can’t be ignored in considering the strength of the progressives running in Tuesday’s primaries.

Bowman and Booker have emerged as powerful voices amid recent protests after the police killing of George Floyd. Both have appeared at recent demonstrations in their respective states and have seized on the current moment to argue that their opponents are out of touch.

Bowman has criticized Engel, for instance, for voting for the 1994 crime bill, which has been blamed for increasing the incarceration rates for Black people. Meanwhile, Booker has gone after McGrath for her absence from recent protests in Louisville. He launched an ad last week featuring a clip from a June 1 Democratic debate in which McGrath says that she had not joined the demonstrations because she was spending time with her family.

“They definitely meet the moment and what people are looking for and are speaking very directly and personally to the experiences of folks,” said Maria Langholz, the press secretary for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has endorsed Booker, Bowman and Jones.

“They have a longtime investment in the communities where they’re running and the people they’re running against don’t have the best histories,” she said, noting that Engel, for example, had been absent from his district for weeks before the primary.

Still, some on the left are hedging expectations, downplaying the notion that the Tuesday primaries will be a bellwether for how the progressive movement is faring in 2020.

Sroka, the communications director for Democracy for America, said that “the idea that any one of them could win is a testament to progressives’ strength.”

But he acknowledged that there are still challenges for progressives in Tuesday’s primaries. The ongoing coronavirus pandemic could suppress voter turnout and establishment-backed candidates still have significant structural and financial advantages, he said.

“There’s a reason why the establishment is the establishment,” he said. “That’s because they’ve got the power and they’ve got the money. And that makes it a lot harder for the candidates that are willing to buck those forces to win.”

Tags Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Eliot Engel Elizabeth Warren Joe Crowley Joyce Beatty Mitch McConnell Nita Lowey
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