Bowman Primary Loss to Latimer Is the Start of a New Era

Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

George Latimer ousted Representative Jamaal Bowman, a two-term leftist and critic of Israel, in what’s believed to be the most expensive congressional primary ever fought. For moderates hoping to check the power of the Squad in Congress, it was a joyous night; for the many progressives who hoped to save one of their most prominent politicians, it was a deeply dispiriting — if no longer shocking — turn of events.

Latimer was technically an insurgent but didn’t campaign like one. Recruited by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the Westchester County executive targeted Bowman for failing, in his view, to adequately support Israel in the wake of the Hamas attacks. AIPAC spent at least $14 million on behalf of Latimer, an extraordinary sum, drowning television and radio stations with advertisements lacerating Bowman and propping up the more conservative Latimer. Notably, the AIPAC-funded ads said nothing about Israel, instead focusing on Bowman’s alleged lack of loyalty to Joe Biden, who is liked enough by many Democrats. Bowman’s embrace of the Democratic Socialists of America, who are explicitly anti-Zionist, may have alienated moderate Jewish voters even more. While outside groups like Justice Democrats managed to contribute more than $1 million in ads to help Bowman, the spending was remarkably lopsided: By one tally, Latimer-aligned PACs had outspent Bowman seven to one. Rallies with Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the campaign’s final days could not save him, either.

Bowman, a charismatic and unapologetic leftist with a penchant for controversy, would have had a tough reelection fight even if AIPAC hadn’t emerged to add so much rocket fuel to Latimer’s campaign. He faced a House censure for pulling a false fire alarm when Democrats were trying to stall a vote. Blog posts he wrote more than a decade ago appeared to give credence to 9/11 conspiracy theories, and his YouTube page following conspiracy accounts became news. He was forced to apologize after lavishing praise on Norman Finkelstein, the acerbic anti-Israel scholar, at a panel discussion. And he initially claimed reports of Hamas raping Israeli women on October 7 were “propaganda.”

In a suburban, racially diverse seat roping in large chunks of Westchester and a northern sliver of the Bronx, these controversies collectively weighed Bowman down, especially in the district’s sizable Jewish community. Four years ago, Bowman, a former middle-school principal, had unseated Eliot Engel, a high-ranking congressman and staunch Israel hawk. Many of Engel’s allies were out for revenge.

AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups have been casting about for challengers to defeat as many Squad Democrats — the AOC-aligned House group that has been willing to forcefully criticize the Israeli military’s actions in Gaza — as possible, and they’ve had, until Bowman, little to boast about. Summer Lee, a progressive from Pennsylvania, breezed to reelection earlier in the year, and threats to take on Rashida Tlaib, the Palestinian American congresswoman who supports the BDS movement, went nowhere.

But in Latimer, AIPAC had an ideal recruit. Until this race, he had been a liberal in good standing, working well with activist groups in Westchester and even campaigning with the support of the Working Families Party. Left-leaning Democrats celebrated him for defeating Rob Astorino, a right-wing Republican, and returning the county to Democratic control in 2018. If he was, more subtly, unwilling to ruffle the feathers of the county’s more reactionary forces, he rarely picked fights with the left and mostly focused on hyperlocal issues. Like a suburban version of Chuck Schumer, Latimer was known for showing up everywhere in the county, and no ribbon cutting or potluck dinner seemed too small for the hustling, neighborly pol to make an appearance. A former state legislator, he had been winning elections for three decades.

Even as Latimer swerved rightward in the primary, he was well positioned to deflect attacks from the Bowman campaign. In 2020, Bowman had won by portraying Engel, who waited out the pandemic in Maryland, as aloof and out of touch with the struggles of the district. Like Joe Crowley, who claimed a Queens residence but raised his family in Virginia, Engel was no longer active among his constituents. Latimer, though, was everywhere in Westchester, and he campaigned aggressively throughout the county.

Latimer’s triumph could come at a cost. He defeated Westchester’s first Black congressman in a primary that polarized around race. He angered many Democrats by claiming Bowman’s real constituencies were in San Francisco and Dearborn — Bowman and his allies accused Latimer of race-baiting. Black and Latino voters could view him as the new congressman for white, wealthy Westchester, where he resides, and not someone looking out for them. “I’m an outspoken Black man,” Bowman said during a recent debate. “His supporters don’t want that, because it challenges their power.”

On foreign policy, Latimer’s unstinting alliance with AIPAC might put him on the rightward fringe of his own party, alienated even from Schumer, who called for Benjamin Netanyahu to step aside earlier this year. Democrats in Congress have grown increasingly uneasy with the war there, as Israel continues to slaughter civilians and openly rejects the concept of a Palestinian state. For now, Latimer fits comfortably with the Israel hawks in New York’s House delegation, including the Bronx’s Ritchie Torres. But life for him in Congress may only get more complicated. The Netanyahu government continues to antagonize the Biden administration, and Latimer’s views on Israel bring him into closer alignment with Donald Trump.

Progressives, meanwhile, have been dealt a grievous blow. Bowman was a rising star and someone who could have, with enough time in the House, run for higher office. When he first ran against Engel, he was able to forge coalitions between working-class voters of color and college-educated activists. The Squad, without him, is still large enough and may grow in the coming years — even if Cori Bush, another prominent member, also loses this summer. But Bowman’s defeat marks the loss of a rare — if undisciplined — political talent. AIPAC and other moneyed forces will hope they’ve found a new blueprint for success: Recruit a willing, well-known lawmaker to run against a progressive and pump many millions into the primary.

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