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Establishment Democrats unable to stop far left infiltration of the party

For the Democratic party as a whole, Bowman and Engel’s race represents a political struggle for identity that goes beyond a handful of New York constituents.

Leonardo Briceno Virginia US

When two Democratic candidates went head to head for the chance to represent New York’s 16th congressional district, a distinctly progressive platform beat out a longstanding powerhouse in the democratic establishment. It’s a race that uniquely highlights a changing set of priorities for the United States’ Democratic voter base.

Jamaal Bowman won the bid for Democratic candidacy in New York’s 16th Congressional district on Friday, ending fellow Democrat, Eliot Engel’s, 16-term representation of the district. On the surface, it might look like American politics as usual; a fresh Democrat candidate comes in and an older one comes out.

But for the Democratic party as a whole, Bowman and Engel’s race represents a political struggle for identity that goes beyond a handful of New York constituents. For the Democratic establishment, those at the head of the party, Bowman’s victory poses a potential source of concern. The Democratic party might be sliding farther to the left faster than the party leadership can really hope to control.

Engel, the former Democratic incumbent, has been around the block a time or two; he wasn’t a politically uncertain rookie congressman in need of replacing. Instead, having been a representative in the House for 31 years, Engel is a core member of the Democratic establishment—the twelfth longest sitting congressman in the House.

In 2019, Engel had been named one of the top ten most effective Democrats in Congress by the Center for Effective Lawmaking at Vanderbilt University and the University of Virginia. His race for NY-16 had some of the most influential Democratic names behind it. Hillary Clinton, Andrew Cuomo, and Nancy Pelosi had all shown support for Engel.

To put it bluntly, he wasn’t supposed to lose. But somehow, the old-school Democratic veteran lost his seat of three decades to a 44-year old middle school principle with no legislative experience: Jamaal Bowman.

Casual onlookers and political pundits alike are asking the same question: how did this happen?

The short answer is that Bowman, who will be replacing Engel on the Democratic ticket in November, is riding a wave of identity change from within the Democratic party. In his race, Bowman pitted himself as the people’s underdog willing to stand up to the establishment.

Running on left-leaning policy ideas, Bowman’s campaign focused on many topics covered in the Democratic party’s primary leading up to Joe Biden’s 2020 nomination. Medicare for all, fighting perceived institutionalized racism in education, The Green New Deal, Immigrant rights, and gun policy reform were some of his main points of emphasis. But it’s not these policy ideas themselves that make Bowman one of a new breed of Democrats—it’s how he talks about them.

His tone is one that resonates with younger voters, one of frustration, outrage, and one that calls for a more aggressive stance that focuses on the government’s responsibility to provide for and protect the individual. He leans far left, even by the Democratic party standards. Per their respective campaign websites, Bowman and Engel shared very similar verbiage and covered many of the same topics. Bowman, however, is willing to yell where Engel seems only willing to talk. And although the two candidates were running a very similar race as far as policy is concerned, to leftward leading voters it would seem that Bowman was willing to run the extra mile at a faster pace.

"I’m a Black man who was raised by a single mother in a housing project. That story doesn’t usually end in Congress," Bowman told audiences. "But today, that 11-year-old boy who was beaten by police is about to be your next Representative."

In an interview with The Atlantic, Bowman voiced concerns that the democratic party has lost its way, following corporate interests rather than serving the "civil rights, and humanitarian rights, and economic rights" that should be the essence of the democratic party. This puts him on the same page as many younger voices in the Democratic party, such as the "squad,"  who have continued to push the party leftward, calling for more humanitarian and progressive platforms.

His tone worked.

As the race continued, Bowman began to gain traction, eventually out fund-raising the incumbent, with an impressive $431,000 to Engel’s $389,000. Bowman wasn’t supposed to win, but this kind of a political identify within that ranks of Democrats earned Bowman his own set of powerful supporters.

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, known for her youthful influence in the party and aggressive progressive stance against the establishment, came out in support of the middle-school principle. Bernie Sanders, who until recently was a close contender for Democratic candidacy for president, also endorsed Bowman, and so did fellow presidential candidate, Elizabeth Warren. All three endorsements represent support from the core of the Democratic party’s far left.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members from the Democratic establishment attempted to prop up Engel as Bowman continue to climb, but were unable to break the challenger’s momentum. After the votes were counted on Friday, Jamaal Bowman beat out Eliot Engel by 15.1 points and took away 55.5 percent of the vote.

It’s not the first time a sitting congressman has been beaten out by an up-and coming candidate. In the past, Democratic leadership made efforts to prevent runs against incumbents within the party. But as Bowman’s campaign demonstrates, democratic voters are looking for new voices willing to advocate for increasingly progressive policies—sometimes at the expense of familiar faces.

In the moments following his victory, Bowman made sure his supporters knew he would continue to push for a new direction in the Democratic party.

"The world has changed. Congress needs to change, too," Bowman told audiences. "But if we can take on entrenched power and wealthy interests here in Westchester and the Bronx, then we can do it all across this country.­­"

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