July 1, 2024

Jamaal Bowman’s Defeat: A Blow to the Pro-Palestine Left in the US

Nick French

On Tuesday, June 25, Rep. Jamaal Bowman lost the Democratic Party primary for New York’s 16th District to challenger George Latimer, capturing about 42 percent to Latimer’s 58 percent. Bowman, who was elected in 2020 and is now serving his second term, is among the most left-wing representatives in Congress, and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who had been endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).

Since October 7, Bowman has been one of the foremost critics of Israel’s brutal war in Gaza. As such, his loss is a blow to the pro-Palestine left in the United States.

Bowman’s defeat is notable for a couple other reasons. For one thing, it is very rare for incumbent congressmembers to lose: last year, OpenSecrets noted that reelection rates in the US House of Representatives have never dropped below 85 percent. (In 2022, the most recent House election, 94 percent of incumbents were reelected.)

For another thing — as widely reported — the race was the most expensive House primary campaign ever. That was largely thanks to the massive $15 million expenditure by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and its super PAC, United Democracy Project (UDP), to elect Latimer.

Bowman was one of several congresspeople who AIPAC declared it was targeting this election cycle, along with fellow Squad members Ocasio-Cortez, Cori Bush (D-MO), Summer Lee (D-PA), Ilhan Omar (D-MN), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI), and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), as well as right-wing Israel critic Thomas Massie (R-KY). Many of these lawmakers have for years drawn the ire of AIPC for their criticisms of Israel and US policy toward Israel and Palestine, but more recently because they have called for a cease-fire in Gaza. Last fall, it was reported that AIPAC planned to spend $100 million total to knock them out of Congress.

But so far, Bowman has been the only congressperson to fall to AIPAC’s assault. AIPAC attempted but failed to recruit a challenger to Tlaib, a Palestinian American, DSA-endorsed representative who has been the harshest critic of US policy toward Israel; this, despite Democratic Senate candidate Hill Harper reporting that the group offered him $20 million to drop out of his race and run for Tlaib’s seat instead. Pressley is also running unchallenged. AIPAC ultimately decided not to spend money supporting challenges to Omar, AOC, and Lee, who all sailed to victory in their primaries. Massie also won a landslide victory in his primary race, despite the group spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to oust him.

AIPAC is investing considerable resources against Bush: according to AdImpact, United Democracy Project had already spent $2.5 million on booking advertisements as of June 27. The selective investments in challenges Bowman and Bush indicates that AIPAC and UDP may be focusing on races where pro-Palestine incumbents are especially vulnerable, as Politico reported last week.

What made Bowman an easy target? Perhaps the biggest factor has to do with the make-up of his district, which was redrawn after his initial election in 2020. The redrawing made Bowman’s district wealthier and whiter. And it was precisely in richer, paler parts of the district where Bowman fared worse. In the part of the 16th District located in the more working-class, heavily black and Latino Bronx, Bowman beat Latimer 84 to 16 percent. Latimer won, however, in the more affluent Westchester County, which makes up a larger share of the district.

Taking the composition of his district into account — importantly including the fact that Westchester County is disproportionately Jewish — Bowman’s weaknesses are easy to explain. His outspoken criticism of Israel and his progressive stances on other issues simply did not endear him to the more privileged, Israel-friendly suburban voters he needed to win. AIPAC took advantage of that vulnerability, though it did not create it.

Bowman’s defeat is no doubt a loss for the Left. It is the first time a DSA-backed congressmember has been ousted, and it represents the loss of one of the strongest voices for Palestine in Congress. There’s a real threat that Bowman’s race will be taken as a cautionary tale by other would-be progressives, who may moderate or self-censor their criticism of Israel as a result. It is also likely to embolden pro-Israel voices in the Democratic Party — a tragic and dangerous result as Israel’s brutal campaign in Gaza reaches ever greater levels of barbarity. Should Bush lose her primary in August, these setbacks for the pro-Palestine movement may be exacerbated. (A poll late last month found her running neck and neck with her opponent.)

But we shouldn’t exaggerate the significance of Bowman’s loss. Though AIPAC is claiming credit for the win, the facts about the district’s composition and AIPAC’s inability to successfully challenge its other targets suggest that the group’s spending was probably not a game-changer. And Bowman’s underlying weaknesses in the district mean that the race does not portend broader revolt against pro-Palestine politics or progressive politics more generally.

What the election result suggests, rather, is the obvious point that wealthy suburbs are not fertile territory for socialists and progressives. As Matt Karp helpfully put it in Jacobin: “The good news for Bowman’s national supporters is that losing Westchester to an AIPAC-funded centrist is not a meaningful defeat for the American left. Any real challenge to corporate Democrats or the pro-Israel lobby will have to come from somewhere else.”

Building our footprint in diverse working-class communities is, of course, one of the main challenges facing US leftists today. Hopefully, Bowman’s defeat will encourage us to redouble those efforts.

Nick French is an associate editor at Jacobin.

Top photo: AP Photo/Nathan Howard, File