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How a progressive populist appears to have toppled Engel

How a progressive populist appears to have toppled Engel
© Greg Nash

A trickle of absentee votes counted weeks after last month’s New York primary contest has almost assured that former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman will defeat House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot EngelEliot Lance EngelMeet the three Democrats who could lead foreign affairs in the House Trump relents as GSA informs Biden transition to begin Dozens of progressive groups endorse Joaquin Castro for Foreign Affairs chair MORE in what was once seen as a quixotic challenge.

With about 40,000 absentee ballots left to count, Bowman, a first-time candidate, led Engel by 23 percentage points, or just over 10,000 votes. Engel has not conceded the race, though New York Democrats believe his odds of a comeback are almost hopelessly long.

Engel’s campaign has filed suit against elections officials in the Bronx and Westchester County seeking permission to observe absentee ballot counts.

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If Bowman’s lead holds out, it will be just the latest sign of an ascendent movement that has already knocked off long-serving incumbents in recent years in New York, Massachusetts, California and Illinois.

In interviews, nearly a dozen top Democrats in New York City and Washington who kept close tabs on the race described a perfect storm that raised Bowman and hurt Engel, who has represented various iterations of the district since 1988, before Bowman was old enough to vote.

Engel would be the second powerful New York Democrat to lose his bid for another term in just two years.

The veteran lawmaker had plenty of warning that he was facing his most significant challenge since 2000, when he fended off an African American New York City councilman by 9 points. 

Senior Democrats had sounded alarms for several members after Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezTrump will soon be out of office — but polarization isn't going anywhere Trump tweets Thanksgiving criticism of NFL QBs for kneeling Kamala Harris, Stacey Abrams among nominees for Time magazine's 2020 Person of the Year MORE (D) stunned House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joe CrowleyJoseph (Joe) CrowleyBiden's gain is Democratic baseball's loss with Cedric Richmond Business groups breathe sigh of relief over prospect of divided government Ocasio-Cortez glides to reelection MORE (D) in the 2018 primary. Justice Democrats, the group behind Ocasio-Cortez's upset, eyed several other long-serving members who had not faced serious challenges in years or even decades.

Rep. Hakeem JeffriesHakeem Sekou JeffriesHouse Democrats pick Aguilar as No. 6 leader in next Congress Nominated for another Speaker term, Pelosi says it's her last Katherine Clark secures No. 4 leadership spot for House Democrats MORE (D-N.Y.), who replaced Crowley as caucus chairman, urged fellow incumbents to be prepared and to modernize their campaigns. So did Rep. Gregory MeeksGregory Weldon MeeksMeet the three Democrats who could lead foreign affairs in the House Hispanic Caucus endorses Castro for Foreign Affairs gavel Dozens of progressive groups endorse Joaquin Castro for Foreign Affairs chair MORE (D), who acts as the unofficial dean of New York City's delegation to Congress, and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which pushed members to hire staff and poll their districts so they would not be caught unaware.

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Jeffries’s representatives declined to comment for this story. A spokesman for Meeks did not return a request for comment.

Two other members of New York's delegation, Reps. José Serrano (D) and Nita LoweyNita Sue LoweySpending deal clears obstacle in shutdown fight GSA offers to brief Congress next week on presidential transition Biden aide: First Cabinet picks will be announced Tuesday, GSA holdup preventing background checks MORE (D), opted to retire instead of risking a primary challenge. Voters in both districts last month picked young progressive candidates of color to replace them.

Others, like Reps. Yvette ClarkeYvette Diane ClarkeLawmakers call for small business aid at all levels of government The Hill's Morning Report - Sponsored by Facebook - Washington on edge amid SCOTUS vacancy The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - Top tech executives testify in blockbuster antitrust hearing MORE (D) — who only narrowly survived her own primary challenge in 2018 — Jerrold NadlerJerrold (Jerry) Lewis NadlerTop Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon Democratic impeachment leaders blast Trump's pardon of Flynn Democrats accuse GSA of undermining national security by not certifying Biden win MORE (D) and Carolyn MaloneyCarolyn Bosher MaloneyHouse Democrats subpoena private prison operator in forced hysterectomy case Overnight Health Care: Biden team to begin getting COVID briefings | Fauci says he would 'absolutely' serve on Biden's COVID task force | Major glove factories close after thousands test positive for COVID-19 House Oversight panel asks Purdue Pharma's Sackler family to testify over opioid crisis MORE (D) built more robust campaigns than they had in the past. 

Clarke and Nadler survived spirited challenges this year. Maloney leads her challenger, former Obama administration official Suraj Patel (D), by a scant 1.6 percentage points, a margin of fewer than 900 votes.

Engel, too, appeared to take the potential for a primary challenge seriously — he paid for polls in August, December and May, according to spending records filed with the Federal Election Commission. 

Engel did not provide a comment for this story.

Those early polls did not show Bowman as a rising threat, though insiders say they did show Engel with worryingly low numbers in a district in which a majority of voters are people of color. Demographic data shows the district had been moving away from Engel. Over the last decade, Engel's constituents have become more diverse, less white and younger, according to the Census Bureau.

“Engel is one of the people who is ground zero for a primary because he is in a situation in which he represents an increasingly diverse urban constituency where it is possible to create a deathly coalition against an older white incumbent, which is progressive, high socio-economic status whites and people of color,” Sean McElwee, who runs the liberal group Data for Progress, said before the votes came in.

Bowman, meanwhile, spent months planting the seeds of his challenge. Recruited by Justice Democrats, Bowman in February won the Working Families Party’s endorsement, a moment strategists called an early sign of his potential. In early June, only weeks before the primary, another candidate challenging Engel, Andom Ghebreghiorgis, dropped out and backed Bowman.

Gov. Andrew CuomoAndrew CuomoCardinal Dolan hails Supreme Court decision on churches, COVID-19 Cuomo blames new conservative majority for high court's COVID-19 decision Vaccine skepticism emerges as early test for Biden MORE and Sen. Charles SchumerChuck SchumerUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration Voters say Biden should make coronavirus vaccine a priority: poll New York City subway service could be slashed 40 percent, officials warn MORE, New York's top Democrats, waited until the week before last month’s primary to back Engel. Bowman, meanwhile, racked up support from progressive icons like Ocasio-Cortez, Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) and Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersIn defense of incrementalism: A call for radical realism Thomas Piketty says pandemic is opportunity to address income inequality Trump will soon be out of office — but polarization isn't going anywhere MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenThomas Piketty says pandemic is opportunity to address income inequality The Memo: Biden faces tough road on pledge to heal nation Disney laying off 32,000 workers as coronavirus batters theme parks MORE (D-Mass.).

Events far from Engel’s control also hurt him. In March, New York officials announced that the coronavirus had landed at a synagogue in New Rochelle in Engel’s district. As officials scrambled to contain the spread of the disease, Engel was conspicuously absent.

In May, a reporter for The Atlantic found Engel at his home in Potomac, Md. Engel's communications director said Engel had not been to his district since March.

“You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him go back to his district during a pandemic,” a Washington Democrat said.

Engel returned to New York in the closing weeks of the race, though one appearance in particular came to embody the charge Bowman had leveled: that Engel, a 32-year incumbent, was out of touch with his district.

Sharing the stage with fellow elected officials, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. told Engel he had a long list of elected officials who were set to address an audience after protests over police brutality, following the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

“If I didn't have a primary,” Engel said, “I wouldn't care.”

The twin shocks of a global pandemic that disproportionately killed Blacks and Hispanics and widespread demonstrations for racial justice gave voters a chance to form new coalitions.

The pandemic undermined trust in government institutions, New York-based strategists said, making a long-time incumbent more a symbol of a broken system than the bearer of popular pork projects. 

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The protests, which elevated the Black Lives Matter movement, gave voters another reason to cast a ballot for a young progressive Black man who had told of his own abuse at the hands of police.

Bowman would be the second progressive outsider to oust a Democratic incumbent this year, after marketing executive Marie Newman (D) beat Rep. Daniel LipinskiDaniel William LipinskiHouse votes to condemn alleged hysterectomies on migrant women Five things we learned from this year's primaries Hispanic Caucus campaign arm endorses slate of non-Hispanic candidates MORE (D-Ill.) in a Southside Chicago district. He is overwhelmingly likely to win the Yonkers-based district in November. Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonValadao unseats Cox in election rematch Trump says he'll leave White House if Biden declared winner of Electoral College Federal workers stuck it out with Trump — now, we're ready to get back to work MORE carried three-quarters of the vote there in 2016.

In a statement the day after the primary, with a commanding lead but thousands of votes left to count, Bowman declared victory.

“From the very beginning, we anchored our campaign in the fight for racial and economic justice. We spoke the truth — about the police, about systemic racism, about inequality — and it resonated in every part of the district,” Bowman said. “The results show that the people of NY-16 aren’t just ready for change — they’re demanding it.”