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NY Democrats brace for primary night stunners

The Hill logo The Hill 6/23/2020 Jonathan Easley and Julia Manchester
Eliot Engel, Yvette Clarke posing for the camera: NY Democrats brace for primary night stunners © Greg Nash - Anna Moneymaker NY Democrats brace for primary night stunners

House Democrats in New York are bracing for a turbulent election day, with incumbents feeling the heat from upstart primary challengers while open seats attract huge fields of candidates.

The coronavirus pandemic and protests over the death of George Floyd while in police custody have created a volatile backdrop for Tuesday's elections. Challengers to longtime lawmakers, led by progressive candidates, have received bursts of momentum and key endorsements in the run-up to the election, potentially making for a tense few days or weeks of vote counting.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), the 16-term chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is suddenly the underdog in his primary against middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, who has received national media attention and endorsements from top progressives.

Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) faces a primary rematch against Adem Bunkeddeko, who nearly defeated her in 2018. Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) is facing her first primary challenge ever.

Several other incumbents are expected to win their primaries but are taking nothing for granted in this volatile atmosphere.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), a fundraising powerhouse and one of the progressive left's biggest stars, is taking her challenge from well-funded TV news anchor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera seriously.

In addition, the House seats that are being vacated by Reps. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and José Serrano (D-N.Y.) are up for grabs. Both have attracted big fields of contenders.

"New Yorkers have a history of insurgency - these periods we go through of reform and progressive activity, and we might be seeing those conditions now," said Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran New York campaigns operative. "The sum total is that if turnout is high you could see incumbents losing their seats."

The growing consensus among New York Democrats is that Engel will lose to Bowman, potentially giving progressives their biggest primary victory of the cycle. It's extremely rare for a sitting committee chairman to lose in a primary.

The race has erupted into a battle between the progressive left and mainstream Democrats. Engel is backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton, while Bowman has scooped up support from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) along with Ocasio-Cortez.

A poll conducted by the progressive firm Data for Progress shows Bowman up 10 points over Engel, although the congressman's campaign touts its own internal polling, which shows Engel up 8 points over Bowman. Bowman outraised Engel in the second quarter.

Bowman has hit Engel for what he says is his absence from the district, especially during the coronavirus pandemic. Engel has also been under fire for being caught on a hot mic saying that he needed to speak at an event on the civil unrest because he was facing a primary challenger.

"Obviously it's a tight race. It's a tough race," a spokesman for the Engel campaign told The Hill. "To be honest, it hasn't been a particularly issue-oriented campaign. Congressman Engel has a long record on many issues from 'Medicare for All,' to the Green New Deal, to reproductive choice ... but it's been pretty much responding to negative stuff."

Clarke, the seven-term lawmaker representing Brooklyn, will have her work cut out for her in beating back a challenge from Bunkeddeko, a community activist. Bunkeddeko only fell short to Clarke by about 2,000 votes in 2018 and this year he won the endorsement of The New York Times.

"Clarke barely won last time and she looks to have big problems this time," said Sheinkopf. "Her district has high levels of income inequality and gentrification. That's a bad recipe for a long-term incumbent in New York right now."

Other New York Democrats are favorites to win their primaries.

Ocasio-Cortez, who rocketed to political stardom after her shocking defeat of former Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.), is now defending her Queens district against Caruso-Cabrera, who has the backing of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and has leveraged her business contacts to raise $2 million. Caruso-Cabrera has a high profile from her time as a top correspondent for CNBC.

The progressive star has spent more than $6 million defending her seat this cycle and has one of the largest campaign operations of any House member.

"We take nothing for granted," Ocasio-Cortez's campaign spokeswoman Lauren Hitt said in an email to The Hill over the weekend.

Meng, who is seeking her fifth term representing the 6th District, will face a competitive primary for the first time. Both Sandra Choi, an economic policy expert, and community organizer Melquiades Gagarin are challenging Meng from the left.

Longtime Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) is also facing multiple challengers in the Democratic primary in New York's 10th District.

Nadler played a high-profile role in President Trump's impeachment and received coveted progressive endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez and Warren.

Nadler cited Ocasio-Cortez's 2018 victory in an interview with The New York Times last week, saying it "showed that longtime incumbents can be vulnerable"

"Now, anybody who has any ambition - even if no realistic chance of winning an election or no reason to run - suddenly decided to run," Nadler told the Times.

Nadler faces challenges from progressives Lindsey Boylan, a former aide to Cuomo and Jonathan Herzog, a former staffer on tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang's presidential campaign.

"I think we need a whole new generation of leaders, not necessarily by age, but by experience and by background," Boylan said in an interview with The Hill. "If there are that many challenges to making change and changing who has a seat at the table then the whole system is fundamentally flawed."

In New York's 12th District, Democrat Suraj Patel will take on Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) for a second time Tuesday. He is one of three challengers looking to take down the 14-term congresswoman.

Patel lost his primary challenge against Maloney in 2018 by roughly 20 points.

"Nobody cares on the street at all about Rep. Maloney's chairwomanship or seniority," Patel said in an interview. "That's a very Washington game. You walk around and the most common refrain you hear is 'where's Maloney been?' "

Meanwhile, a Maloney campaign official said they are taking "nothing for granted."

"This race has been a showcase of the Chairwoman's accomplishments and what she's delivered for NY-12 both throughout her career and during this pandemic," said the official. "While these very difficult times presented unique challenges for everyone, we have taken nothing for granted in getting her message out to our voters and turning them out. It may take a few extra days to count all the mail-in ballots, but we are confident in the outcome both tomorrow and once the absentee ballots are counted."

Maloney will also face Lauren Ashcraft and Peter Harrison in the primary.

A number of candidates are vying to fill the seats of retiring Reps. Lowey in New York's 17th District and Serrano in the 15th District.

Twelve Democrats are in the race to replace Serrano in the Bronx, with New York City Councilman Ritchie Torres, New York State Assemblyman Michael Blake and former New York City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito leading in fundraising.

A Data for Progress poll showed state Sen. Rubén Diaz Sr., a conservative Democrat who has expressed anti-LGBT views, leading with 22 percent support, while Torres was close behind at 20 percent.

The race in the 17th District is also crowded, with eight contenders and more than $7 million spent. Progressive Mondaire Jones leads the pack with an 11-point lead over his closest rivals, according to a Data for Progress poll. He would become the first Black openly LGBT member of Congress if elected in November.

"I'm really excited to be running in the community that raised me and to elect a champion of working people," Jones said in an interview. "And of course in the process make history. There's never been an openly gay, Black member of Congress."

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