What Jamaal Bowman’s Defeat Does and Doesn’t Tell Us About The Future of The Left

Attempts to cast Bowman as part of a trend gloss over the details of the district and the candidate.
WHITE PLAINS, NEW YORK - JUNE 25: Westchester County Executive George Latimer speaks to supporters after winning his race against Democratic incumbent Representative Jamaal Bowman in the 16th Congressional District o... WHITE PLAINS, NEW YORK - JUNE 25: Westchester County Executive George Latimer speaks to supporters after winning his race against Democratic incumbent Representative Jamaal Bowman in the 16th Congressional District of New York's Democratic primary. Latimer beat Bowman, one of the most liberal members of Congress, after the congressman made a series of statements critical of Israel and supportive of Palestinians in a district with a large population supportive of Israel. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images) MORE LESS
Start your day with TPM.
Sign up for the Morning Memo newsletter

This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis.

In the 24 hours after left-leaning incumbent Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) was defeated by the more centrist George Latimer, commentators rushed to interpret Bowman’s defeat as emblematic of some larger trend in the national mood, speculating about the vulnerability of other left-leaning House members, including those who make up the so-called Squad.

The New York Times called the outcome “a stinging defeat to the Democratic left.” Giving voice to a perspective shared by the American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which poured big bucks into the anti-Bowman effort, the Times claimed that Bowman’s defeat “could have a chilling effect on other critics of Israel at a crucial point in the war.” A USA Today headline predicted: “Jamaal Bowman’s primary results may spell trouble for other squad members.”

This was all before Thursday’s presidential debate, which for some brought the very real prospect of a second Trump presidency into sharper focus. As Democrats panic about Biden’s role atop the ticket, down-ballot strategy becomes all the more important.

And so it is important to understand: Drawing sweeping conclusions from Bowman’s defeat would be misguided. The myopic punditry found in many post-primary takeaways should not influence Democratic strategy in the upcoming elections and beyond. The demographics of Bowman’s district, and his shortage of political skills, are not characteristic of the other Squad members, or of other Democratic reps who are Squad-adjacent.

The District

Three factors contributed to Bowman’s defeat. First, New York’s 16th Congressional District, while safely Democratic, was not particularly progressive, especially in comparison to the districts represented by other Squad members and those considered Squad-adjacent. Second, Bowman made a number of embarrassing blunders and failed to develop close ties to his constituents. Third, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) took advantage of these weaknesses in a heavily Jewish district, pouring close to $15 million into defeating Bowman, hoping to make him an example of what can happen to Democrats who don’t echo AIPAC’s full-throated support for the current Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

In 2020, Bowman — an African-American middle school principal in his mid-40s with no previous political experience — defeated Rep. Eliot Engel, a 16-term incumbent, and staunch liberal, who chaired the House Foreign Affairs Committee. The election took place in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic and a few months after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police triggered an upsurge of protest against racism. Since Engel was first elected in 1988, the number of Black and Latino voters in the Bronx-centered district had increased considerably and Engel was out-of-touch with his newer constituents.

Bowman also benefitted from a progressive surge in the Democratic party. In 2018, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won in the nearby NY-14, defeating a longtime Democratic incumbent, capturing the imagination, donations, and grassroots engagement of many liberal and progressive voters. By 2020, AOC was a media superstar and popular incumbent and won re-election by a wide margin.

Although their districts were very different demographically, Bowman partly rode to victory on AOC’s coattails. But by the time he ran for re-election in 2022, Bowman’s district had been redrawn, part of a years-long court battle between Democrats and Republicans in the state legislature over district lines. The Bronx part of the district (where Bowman had won by a large margin) was reduced to a sliver, while the wealthier Westchester County suburbs north of New York City, with a larger number of liberal but not left-wing Jewish voters, comprised a much larger chunk of the district. In 2020, Bowman had defeated Engel with 55.4% of the Democratic primary vote. Two years later, running against several relatively unknown Democrats, he only got 54.4% of the primary vote. Clearly Bowman was walking on thinner ice.

The Candidate

But Bowman didn’t help himself by his conduct in office. He did not cement his ties to the key Democrats, the small business groups, suburban voters, or the Jews in his district. He was not very adept at providing constituent services — the kind of civic housekeeping that makes voters loyal to politicians whose views they may disagree agree with. His voting record in Congress was in sync with the Progressive Caucus but on same issues he alienated party leaders, including his vote against the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill because, he said, it didn’t go far enough. Other Squad members did the same thing, fearing that passing the slimmer infrastructure package would allow centrist Democrats to claim that they had done enough, making it harder to whip votes for President Biden’s more expansive Build Back Better plan. (The progressives who voiced this worry were, ultimately, right; Build Back Better died for a time, and eventually came back in a slimmed-down form as the Inflation Reduction Act.)

That vote, regardless of the legislative details surrounding it, came back to haunt Bowman, with his opponents casting it as a significant and brazen rebuke of Biden. Further, last September, unable to open a door in a House office building, Bowman pulled a fire alarm, sending the Capitol into chaos, forcing members to evacuate the building. Regardless of Bowman’s explanation, it looked like the kind of prank typical of a teenager, not a member of Congress. Bowman later pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge and apologized, but the incident quickly became easy fodder for his opponents, including Latimer, to depict him as lacking maturity or common sense. (Republicans went further, claiming the incident was the same as the January 6 insurrection, a laughably false comparison.) By Election Day, the voters in the 16th District were well-acquainted with the fire alarm scandal.

Israel and DSA

The Israel/Gaza war has been a difficult issue for Democratic progressives to navigate, but Bowman compounded his problems with Jewish constituents by issuing negative public statements about Israel, and by sowing confusion about the nature of his relationship with the often militantly pro-Palestinian Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). 

What’s ironic is that DSA, one of Bowman’s strongest organizational supporters that helped populate his grassroots campaign in 2020, had earlier attacked Bowman for being too pro-Israel. DSA, which grew dramatically, from 6,000 to 100,000 members nationwide, in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, provided many of the ground troops for AOC’s 2018 victory and helped elect other left-leaning candidates for the New York City Council, the state legislature, and Congress, including Bowman. But that changed after Bowman took a trip to Israel in 2021 sponsored by J Street, a liberal “pro-Israel, pro-peace” lobby group. DSA denounced him, and threatened to expel him from the organization. Eventually Bowman and DSA reconciled, in part because both became increasingly critical of Israel. DSA endorsed him again in May. But by then it was too late. DSA’s litmus-test leftism had embroiled Bowman in a public dispute that accentuated his ties to the group while at the same time confused voters about his views about Israel.

Bowman contributed to the confusion. He supported a congressional resolution memorializing the “nakba,” the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Palestinians after Israel became a sovereign state in 1948. Immediately after October 7, Bowman condemned Hamas’ attack against Israel, but then soon thereafter insisted that Israel halt its retaliatory bombing of Gaza. Calling for a ceasefire between the two sides, as Bowman did on October 16, may appear reasonable now, but at the time was not popular among Democratic leaders and even most liberal Jews.

Subsequently, Bowman escalated his rhetoric, accusing Israel of “genocide.” His participation in an event at a local Islamic center that included Norman Finkelstein, a controversial anti-Zionist writer who is anathema to all but the most left-wing Jewish groups, was politically stupid. As a result, J Street, which supported Bowman in his first two campaigns, took the unprecedented step of rescinding its endorsement.

Because he lacked close ties with Jewish groups in his district, he didn’t get the benefit of the doubt. In those circles, he became a pariah. The small left-wing Jewish groups that continued to embrace Bowman did not have the numbers or credibility to offset the loss of mainstream liberal Jewish voters.

NEW YORK, NEW YORK – JUNE 25: U.S. Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) speaks during his election night party at the Grand Roosevelt Ballroom on June 25, 2024 in New York City. Bowman lost his re-election for New York’s 16th District primary to Democratic candidate George Latimer in what was the most expensive House primary to date. Bowman is the first of nine progressive members dubbed “the Squad” to lose their House seat. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

Enter Latimer and AIPAC

As Bowman’s political weaknesses became increasing apparent, many Democrats in the district looked for someone to run against him in the primary. The 70-year old Latimer was the perfect candidate. A Democrat, he had served on the Rye City Council, in the Westchester County legislature, and in the New York State Assembly. From 2013 to 2017 he served in the New York State Senate. In 2017, he ran successfully for Westchester County executive, unseating incumbent Republican Rob Astorino. He was well-known and well-liked in the district, although perhaps slightly more centrist than its voters. (In 2008, Barack Obama won the district with 72% of the vote. In 2020, Biden captured the district by the same margin.)

AIPAC, the Democratic Majority for Israel, and other pro-Israel groups fully embraced Latimer’s campaign. Together, they spent more than $16 million to defeat Bowman, making it the most expensive House primary race in history. Some left-leaning groups like the Working Families Party spent about $1.75 million to help Bowman, but he couldn’t overcome the huge spending gap.

Latimer’s allies poked insistently at Bowman’s vulnerabilities with Jewish voters. The Westchester Jewish Council sponsored Latimer’s visit to Israel a few weeks after October 7. A Jewish-led group called Westchester Unites orchestrated a well-organized outreach and get-out-the-vote effort, targeting synagogue members and telling Jews that “antisemitism is on the ballot.”

As polls showed that he was likely to lose, a desperate Bowman doubled down on the same talking points that had contributed to his weaknesses. “My opponent supports genocide,” Bowman said at a recent rally in the Bronx. “My opponent and AIPAC are the ones destroying our democracy and it is on us, it is on all of us, to save our democracy.” Elsewhere, Bowman said that AIPAC’s support for Latimer was “fueled by racist MAGA Republicans.” He offended many Jewish voters when he suggested that “the Jews” in his district had intentionally chosen to live in their own segregated enclaves.

Last-minute campaign events with Bernie Sanders and fellow Squad members Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) couldn’t rescue Bowman’s campaign.

Bowman’s failure to connect with Jewish voters was fatal. Jews represent about 9% of Westchester’s population but about 20% of voters in recent elections. On Tuesday, they came closer to one-quarter of the total turnout.

Few American Jews, it should be said, share AIPAC’s “Israel right-or-wrong” stance. American Jews — including those in New York’s 16th District — are overwhelmingly Democrats, liberals, and critical of the current Israeli government. But AIPAC, which has essentially become an arm of the GOP, was able to exploit Bowman’s political ineptness. Many Jews who had voted for Bowman in 2022 switched to Latimer this year. And his support declined among Black and brown voters in the small part of the Bronx that remained in his district.

Democratic Diversity

So, what does this mean for the Democratic Party more generally?

AIPAC and its allies are rejoicing that, after several failed attempts, they have finally defeated a member of the Squad. But if they think that Bowman’s loss is a template for destroying the Sanders/AOC wing of the Democratic Party, they are seriously mistaken.

Progressive and democratic socialist candidates have been able to prevail in a small but growing number of House districts. These include Squad members Ocasio-Cortez (NY), Pressley (MA), Rashida Tlaib (MI), Ilhan Omar (MN), Summer Lee (PA), and Greg Cesar (TX) and Squad-adjacent members like Jamie Raskin (MD), Pramila Jayapal (WA), Judy Chu (CA), Maxwell Frost (FL), Jan Schakowsky (IL), Raul Grijalva (AZ), Marc Pocan (WI), Mark Takano (CA), and a few others. As members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, they try to push liberal and centrist Democrats to embrace bolder ideas and a sharper contrast with the GOP.

With the possible exception of Cori Bush, who faces an AIPAC-funded opponent in the Democratic primary in her St. Louis district on August 6, the other Squad and Squad-adjacent Democrats are not particularly vulnerable, even if lobbying groups pour big donations into defeating them. This is in part because their districts are generally more progressive than Bowman’s and in part because they are better politicians than Bowman.

For example, in 2022, Rep. Summer Lee barely won both the Democratic primary and the general election against AIPAC-funded candidates in her Pennsylvania district, which includes Pittsburgh and surrounding suburbs. Last October, like Bowman, she called for a ceasefire in the Israel/Gaza war. But Lee was more politically astute. She worked hard to strengthen her ties to the unions, community groups, businesses, and Jewish organizations in her district. This year, AIPAC stayed out of the race but an AIPAC-like mega-donor, Republican Jeffrey Yass, bankrolled a super PAC attacking Lee over her stance on Israel and boosting her primary challenger, Bhavini Patel. It didn’t work. In the April primary, Lee won with 60% of the vote, leading many of the same news outlets that presaged the left’s demise, following Bowman’s defeat, to trumpet the opposite conclusion.

Conservative Wishful Thinking

Two years ago, many commentators viewed the recall of left-wing San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin as a barometer of the national mood, suggesting that the short era of progressive DAs was over.

That was a similar mistake. Like Bowman, Boudin was not a very good politician. As I wrote at the time, he hurt himself with a number of rookie mistakes. But contrary to predictions, there’s been no evidence of a swing against progressive DAs around the country, despite the efforts of conservative groups, including police unions and business/real estate lobby groups, to defeat them with major campaign contributions to their opponents. Voters elected other progressive DAs that year and since then.

Similarly, it would be a mistake to conclude from Jamaal Bowman’s defeat on Tuesday that the political winds are shifting against progressive/left Democrats, and that Democrats would be well-served to find more candidates like Latimer in these districts.

The Democratic Party is hardly monolithic, and the nature of the district matters. In fact, it is healthy to have differences and debates within the party over key issues. Biden has been a much more progressive president than most political observers anticipated, in large part because he embraced ideas from the party’s leftists on corporate regulation, student debt, the minimum wage, abortion, climate change, gun safety, health care (including drug prices), and other issues, acknowledging the severity of these problems if not always agreeing with the left on the solution. He may be the most pro-union president in history. 

But it follows that there are many parts of the country where Democratic candidates like Sanders or AOC have little chance of winning a primary, much less a general election. Even in many blue congressional districts, the majority of Democrats are not consistently progressive, much less democratic socialists.

AIPAC and its Republican allies are probably smart enough to realize that if they want to elect more candidates who swear fealty to Netanyahu’s right-wing racist agenda, going after the Squad and other progressive Democrats is a waste of money. Whether the Democrats or Republicans control the House after November will be decided in the truly “toss up” districts. According to the Cook Political Report, there are now 11 such districts currently held by Democrats and 11 held by Republicans. AIPAC may brag that it helped defeat Jamaal Bowman. But, in fact, Bowman was the architect of his own demise.

Latest Cafe

Comments are not currently available for this post.

Continue Discussion
Masthead Masthead
Founder & Editor-in-Chief:
Executive Editor:
Managing Editor:
Associate Editor:
Editor at Large:
General Counsel:
Head of Product:
Director of Technology:
Associate Publisher:
Front End Developer:
Senior Designer: