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The Speaker’s Lobby: Lessons Learned in the Bowman/Latimer Primary, Regardless Who Prevails

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The primary race between New York Dynamo Rep. Jamaal Bowman and Westchester County, New York Executive George Latimer tells a story.

This is a story that has a lot to say about the Democratic Party circa 2024.

And it’s a story Democrats may want to disappear just four and a half months before the November election.

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The Bowman-Latimer primary contest highlights divisions within the Democratic Party, revealing nervous tensions between progressives like Bowman and mainstream Democrats like Latimer. It also highlights rifts over the Middle East that have divided the party. Bowman is a vocal critic of Israel for its war with Hamas; Latimer is a vocal defender of Israel.

Latimer decided to challenge Bowman after she previously denied sexual violence and other atrocities committed by Hamas.

“There is still no evidence that babies were decapitated or women were raped, and yet they are still using that lie. It’s propaganda,” Bowman said in a TikTok video that went viral.

It wasn’t until last week that Bowman retracted those comments during an appearance on WNYC-FM in New York.

“Immediately after the United Nations presented additional evidence, I voted to condemn sexual violence and I apologize for my words,” Bowman told WNYC.

A side-by-side photo of Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., and Westchester County Executive George Latimer, N.Y. (Getty Images)

After Bowman’s scathing attack on Israel, the pro-Israel political action committee AIPAC poured money into Latimer’s campaign, making it the most expensive primary in House history, with a staggering combined total of $24 million spent between the candidates.

But the involvement of groups like AIPAC in the election spurred progressive supporters to root for Bowman, whose supporters didn’t dwell on his differences with Israel, instead targeting the flow of money into his campaign.

“This election is not about ideologies. It’s about whether billionaire super PACs can buy our democracy,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT).

“He hasn’t taken a dime from corporate lobbyists since he was elected to Congress,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said during Bowman’s campaign. “Why would he do that? Because he knows that taking corporate and lobbyist money means he can’t put the people of Westchester first.”

Bowman described it in cruder terms during a campaign rally over the weekend.

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“We’re going to show AIPAC the power of the motherfuckers in the South Bronx,” Bowman boasted at the expletive-filled rally. Outside the district Saturday.

Mr Latimer described such crude language as “inappropriate”.

“I think you have a right to vent your anger,” Latimer said. “I don’t think you have a right to swear in public.”

Bowman continued his vitriolic tirade to the enthusiastic Bronx crowd.

“People are asking me why I’m being foul-mouthed. What am I supposed to do? Are you coming after me? Are you coming after my family? Are you coming after my kids? Am I not supposed to fight back? Am I not supposed to fight back? We’re going to show them what kind of f**ks we are,” Bowman warned.

That’s the essence of the Bowman/Latimer campaign: Different styles. Different approaches. Different ways to connect with Democrats.

“X. For Generation X. For the Bronx. X. From Malcolm X!” Bowman yelled.

“What I’m proposing is a slogan for results, not rhetoric,” Latimer said.

Rep. Jamaal Bowman seeks reelection

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) speaks during his re-election rally at McEachron Park on June 21, 2024 in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York. (Joy Malone/Getty Images)

Then there’s the geography of the district: Progressives are scattered throughout the urban areas of the north Bronx that Bowman currently represents, as well as inner-city suburbs like Yonkers and New Rochelle. But it’s a different story when you venture deeper into Westchester County, which has sizable pro-Israel Jewish populations there, especially in towns like Rye Brook and Mamaroneck.

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“The further north you go in Westchester County, the less support Bowman has,” said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University who has followed the race. “When you get to a place like Rye, the support drops off dramatically. So this is basically Latimer country.”

Bowman finds himself caught in an electoral battle between progressives and enthusiastic pro-Israel voters, making the race a bellwether of the intraparty divide plaguing the Democratic Party.

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“If Jamaal Bowman also loses, I think it will send a pretty strong message that this particular faction of the Democratic Party is unpopular with Democratic primary voters,” Baker said. “It’s right on the fault line between progressives and moderates, and both candidates are perfect examples of what each faction represents.”

Latimer seeks to contrast his own views with those of Bowman.

“He led the rest of his unit to take an active and aggressive anti-Israel stance. If there is a way to peace, we must bring Israel and the Arab countries to the negotiating table and come to a negotiated solution.”

Bowman had been a source of controversy even before the Middle East war: Last fall, Capitol Police filed criminal charges against him for setting off a fire alarm in the Cannon House office building during a vote to avert a government shutdown.

“It was a stupid choice,” Bowman said after his court appearance. “I now take full responsibility. I’m trying to move forward. I’m just going to do my job.”

Democratic Congressional candidate George Latimer campaigns in New York

Westchester County Mayor and New York State Democratic Congressional candidate George Latimer speaks at the Glen Island Bridge public rally at the New York Athletic Club Travers Island, Tuesday, March 19, 2024, in Pelham, New York, USA. (Iwamura Yuki/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Bowman avoided prison time but was fined and ordered to be of good behavior for several months. The judge also ordered Bowman to write a letter of apology to the US Capitol Police.

Former Rep. Eliot Engel, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a leading supporter of Israel, represented the district for 30 years. But Bowman defeated Engel in the 2020 primary. Engel’s loss represents a shift to the left in the Democratic Party and the rise of progressives in the House Democratic caucus. Ocasio-Cortez defeated former Rep. Joe Crowley in the 2018 New York primary, who was seen by many as a possible successor to former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). Other progressives have since emerged, including Rep. Cori Bush (D-Missouri), who defeated former Rep. William Lacy Clay in the 2020 primary.

But the Middle East wars have begun to expose frictions within the Democratic coalition. The Bowman/Latimer contest is a microcosm. The Middle East conflicts are why President Biden may have a hard time winning over young voters at the polls this fall. He and other Democrats may also face difficulties in states with large Arab and Muslim populations, like Michigan.

But the race is a litmus test for the party’s direction. A Bowman loss could signal a rift with the progressive wing, but one defeat could be a one-off. But Bush is set to face St. Louis County Prosecutor Wesley Bell and former state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal in a primary in August. A Bowman loss would continue the trend, and a Bush loss later this summer could be on the cards.

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The lesson for Democrats? There’s a deep divide on their side.