Between the three of them, Reps. Eliot Engel, Nita Lowey and Jerry Nadler have 87 years of experience in Congress, three powerful committee chair positions — and at least six primary challengers gunning for their removal.
All with more than 11 months to go before the primary election.
With the momentum of the activist wing of the Democratic Party against them, the three most powerful members of the New York delegation in the House, and three of the most pro-Israel Democrats in Congress, could face their first real primary challenges in a political landscape dramatically different from the one they first entered when they came to Congress in the 1990s.
For the Jewish community, what’s at stake is the potential loss of some of its closest allies in Congress. As chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Engel is considered one of the most important pro-Israel members of Congress. A fixture at AIPAC conferences, Engel has received major campaign contributions from pro-Israel donors and PACs over the years and introduced numerous resolutions condemning attacks against Israel. Though Engel’s support for Israel has yet to become a major issue in the race, his support for the Iraq War during the Bush years has been a prime target of both of his challengers.
Hank Sheinkopf, a longtime Democratic strategist, hopes pro-Israel groups make a strong showing for Engel against his challengers.
“Pro-Israel groups ought to, because he is likely to be the last pro-Israel Democrat chair of that committee in our lifetimes,” said Sheinkopf, who worries that the defeat of a powerful pro-Israel congressman could put the scent of blood in the water for Israel-focused challengers. “This could be a proxy battle between Israel lovers and Israel haters, and defeating Engel would create the Indianapolis 500 race to see how many pro-Israel congressmen you could whack in the next couple of years.”
From her seat as chair of the House Appropriations Committee, Lowey controls another important vehicle of Democratic policy and financial support for Israel.
David Pollock, director of public policy and Jewish security at the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, pointed to the recent funding for security grants for nonprofits, including synagogues, vulnerable to terrorist attacks. “Nita Lowey, with her little finger, inserted $40 million into the budget for this program,” said Pollock. “That’s the kind of thing that’s very important to the Jewish community.”
Despite the Democratic National Congressional Committee’s promises to protect incumbents, many on the left are hoping 2019 will be the year for fresh-faced progressives to take the places of establishment incumbent lawmakers. Inspired by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s historic defeat of Joe Crowley, the No. 4 Democrat from the Bronx and Queens who was widely expected to succeed Nancy Pelosi as House speaker, primary challengers are stepping into already crowded races to unseat long-serving members of the New York congressional delegation.
In the last year, the progressive primary strategy has developed an infrastructure and a cause. Most of the challengers to the top three New York members of Congress are focused on income inequality, healthcare and climate change. They support Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal and are outspoken in calling for the opening of impeachment proceedings against the president. Coming on the heels of a major battle within the Democratic Party between four first-term members of Congress, sometimes dubbed “the Squad,” and Democratic House leadership, next year’s Democratic primaries are expected to be a proxy war for the future direction of the party.
Demographic shifts in Lowey and Engel’s districts may make it easier for challengers to build winning coalitions of voters. While Lowey’s district remains largely white — approximately 69 percent of the district, according to the 2010 census data, with only 10 percent African-American and 23 percent Hispanic or Latino — her district is somewhat younger than Engel’s, with a median age of 38.8, nearly two years younger than Engel’s 40.5. But Engel’s district is much more heterogeneous. Approximately 45 percent of his district is white, with about 33 percent African-American and 25 percent Hispanic or Latino.
Challenging Engel is Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal backed by Justice Democrats, the Democratic primarying force that recruited Ocasio-Cortez, as well as special education teacher Andom Ghebreghiorgis. Lowey faces former Obama administration Department of Justice attorney Mondaire Jones. Nadler, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee, faces three challengers, including Lindsey Boylan, Holly Lynch and Amanda Frankel. Boylan, a former state economic development official, has already raised over $250,000 and recruited Peter Daou, a former staffer on both of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaigns, as an adviser.
In an interview with The Jewish Week, Jones said he would not seek an endorsement from Justice Democrats in his race against Lowey. He hopes to keep the focus on her record and his domestic policy goals, which include passing the Green New Deal and increasing the state and local tax deductions for residents of Rockland and Westchester counties, two of the highest taxed counties in the state.
When asked about Lowey’s views on Israel, Jones said he shared her support for a two-state solution and said that was an area where he “would not characterize her as out-of-step with her constituents.”
Experts say this year’s primary challenges shouldn’t come as a surprise. After Crowley’s surprise defeat last summer, no incumbent should, they say, consider themselves safe.
“The incumbent Democrats, the old-school Democratic Party … they have been asleep at the wheel here,” said Ester Fuchs, a professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University. “I think the incumbents still have an advantage, obviously, but clearly this combination now of low-turnout elections and alternative ways for non-incumbents to engage voters who haven’t participated and who generally didn’t turn out is creating a lot of volatility.”
The uptick in Democratic primaries may be indicative of a broader trend in American politics.
“Congressional elections have become much more volatile because the majorities have shifted much more significantly over shorter periods in recent American history,” said Sheinkopf. “It tells you something: the electorate is very anxious, and the electorate is prone to make change, with intensity and with force.”
While many have attributed Crowley’s defeat to his inattentiveness to his district, the organization that Ocasio-Cortez and Justice Democrats put together to reach out to new voters and drive turnout proved successful in a district with consistently low voter turnout.
“When the candidates go for turnout strategy is when they look at the electorate and they don’t see a majority coalition for themselves,” said Fuchs. Looking at Engel’s district, where turnout is similarly low — just over 30,000 people cast ballots in the 2018 primary election — Fuchs said she could see a similar strategy paying off. “In a district where you’ve got over 250,000 active Democratic registered voters, you can turn out a small number of new voters and win.”
Still, challenging a well-known incumbent is always a challenge.
“Both districts are geographically large compared to New York City districts,” said Pollock, warning of the added challenge involved in pulling off a victory similar to Ocasio-Cortez’s. “It’s going to be very hard to organize against them.”
The surprise factor will have worn off: “These mainstream Democrats are going to get smarter by the time these primaries come around, now that they’ve seen what happened,” said Fuchs. “They’re not going to be as complacent as Joe Crowley.”
But if voters are motivated by a message of change, like they were in Ocasio-Cortez’s district, the challenges may be surmountable.
“The real opponent that they’re facing is named, ‘been around too long,’” said Sheinkopf. “And if ‘been around too long’ wins, they lose.”
But Fuchs added, “If people aren’t voting on the basis of issues but on the basis of labels, then that’s a significant thing for [incumbents] to worry about.”