Why Jamaal Bowman Lost

Jamaal Bowman

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Updated at 12:46 p.m. ET on July 1, 2024

The easiest explanation for why Representative Jamaal Bowman lost his Democratic primary in New York today is that he alienated the Jewish voters in his district with his denunciations of Israel. That explanation is reasonable, as far as it goes. Indeed, the race was the most expensive House primary in history largely because a pro-Israel group inundated the district with TV ads attacking Bowman. But that’s not the whole story.

Bowman’s defeat by George Latimer, the executive of Westchester County, made him the first member of the House’s progressive “Squad” to lose a reelection bid. He might have hung on had he not criticized Israel so harshly in the weeks after October 7. Yet Bowman had made himself politically vulnerable well before Hamas’s attacks, both by veering too far left of his constituents and by drawing unwelcome attention that had nothing to do with the Middle East.

A former middle-school principal, Bowman won the seat in 2020 by ousting Eliot Engel, a senior House Democrat who was then the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. In doing so, Bowman followed the path set two years earlier by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who’d rallied New York City progressives to defeat a moderate member of the party leadership.

Once in Congress, Bowman aligned himself with AOC and her allies in the left-wing Squad. Both she and Bowman pressured the Biden administration from the left and became foils for Republicans and centrist Democrats.

But their trajectories diverged in other ways. Ocasio-Cortez has been able to establish herself as a progressive star nationally while consolidating support in her district, avoiding a serious electoral challenge. Bowman has struggled to do either. “He did not make the kind of connections and build out the coalition like he needed to in the district,” a former Bowman adviser told me, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid publicly criticizing their former boss.

When Bowman first ran, in 2020, his majority-minority district was more progressive than it is now—and more progressive than AOC’s. Shortly after he won, the decennial reapportionment process extended the northern boundary to include more of New York City’s wealthier suburbs. Bowman’s district now features just a sliver of the Bronx. “His district is not woke. It is Democratic,” another former Bowman adviser told me on the condition of anonymity. Ignoring the advice of some aides, Bowman joined other members of the Squad to vote against President Joe Biden’s infrastructure bill in 2021—a decision that has become a liability in the primary.

Bowman soon became known for his eagerness to confront right-wing Republicans in the halls of Congress, getting into shouting matches with the likes of Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Thomas Massie of Kentucky. During one such exchange last year, Ocasio-Cortez pulled him away from Taylor Greene, telling him, “She ain’t worth it, bro.”

Bowman’s most embarrassing stumble came on September 30, when he was caught pulling a fire alarm in a Capitol office building after Republicans, on short notice, called a vote to avert a government shutdown. Bowman said he was rushing to make the vote and did not realize that pulling the alarm would trigger an evacuation; Republicans accused him of trying to delay the proceeding, and the House voted in December mostly along party lines to censure him. (He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor in the District of Columbia for pulling the fire alarm.)

A week after the incident, Hamas invaded Israel. Bowman immediately condemned the terrorist group but quickly shifted to urging de-escalation in the region. He became one of the first House Democrats to call for Israel to halt its bombing campaign in Gaza and eventually accused it of waging “genocide” against Palestinians. In December, days after returning from a trip to Israel, Latimer launched his campaign.

Much of the Democratic Party machine in Westchester and the Bronx rallied around Latimer, who since 2019 has held Westchester’s most powerful post. He received endorsements from Engel and two other former members of Congress, Nita Lowey and Mondaire Jones, the latter of whom is running to win back a neighboring House seat. Another retiree who lives in the area, Hillary Clinton, also backed Latimer. Although House Democratic leaders supported Bowman—endorsing incumbents is their de facto policy—they did not go out of their way to help him win. Representative Hakeem Jeffries, the minority leader, recorded a robocall for Bowman but did not campaign for him.

By far the biggest spenders in the race have been the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and its allied groups, which have financed more than $14.5 million in ads. Bowman tried to link AIPAC’s support of Latimer to the MAGA movement and even accused his opponent of being an anti-Black and anti-Muslim “racist.” Latimer, who leveled his own criticism that Bowman had ignored constituents “who are not Black or brown,” dismissed the charges as the flailing of a desperate candidate.

Despite AIPAC’s involvement, however, the campaign has not hinged entirely on the Israel-Hamas war. The group’s ads have mentioned the conflict only glancingly, criticizing Bowman instead for opposing Biden’s infrastructure package.

Bowman’s progressive allies tried to rescue him in the closing days of the race. Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont headlined a rally for him in the South Bronx on Saturday. But despite being billed as a “get out the vote” event, the rally took place outside Bowman’s district, about seven miles away from any of his constituents. Three days later, they voted him out.

This article originally stated that Hillary Clinton lives in Jamaal Bowman’s district.

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