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How much is Jamaal Bowmans loss a warning for progressives?

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(WASHINGTON) — Progressive Democrats undeniably suffered their most significant defeat of the 2024 election cycle Tuesday when Rep. Jamaal Bowman lost his New York 16th Congressional District’s Democratic primary. What it means for the movement he belongs to, however, is less clear.

Bowman’s defeat at the hands of Westchester County Executive George Latimer laid bare the nasty divisions among Democrats over support for Israel. Pro-Israel outside groups dumped nearly $15 million — an unprecedented amount of cash — into the race, fueling an avalanche of ads that knocked Bowman and promoted Latimer’s own liberal bona fides on issues like abortion.

The strategy, led by groups allied with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and Democratic Majority for Israel, worked. They netted their most significant win yet in the party’s internal battles over Israel, and a new playbook was born for how to challenge other progressive lawmakers — including Rep. Cori Bush, who is facing a well-funded primary challenger in her St. Louis district this August.

However, operatives estimated that Bowman was particularly low-hanging fruit for his critics. He offered pro-Israel groups ammunition by denying that Hamas committed rape during its Oct. 7 attack on Israel (he later apologized), reports later surfaced that he had spread 9/11 conspiracy theories, and he drew controversy for pulling a fire alarm in the U.S. Capitol, vulnerabilities his compatriots lack.

“I think that this was a referendum on both his persona, his comportment, but also on his legislative record and his messaging,” said Jon Reinish, a New York Democratic strategist who worked with groups opposed to Bowman.

“I think that this is absolutely replicable,” Reinish said. “But you also can’t deny the fact that he was, in his own way, a unique case who inflicted a lot on himself here.”

Bowman, who first won his seat in 2020 by unseating a 16-term incumbent accused of losing touch with his district, entered office vowing a shakeup in Washington. Along the way, he ruffled feathers.

Bowman engaged in shouting matches in Capitol hallways. He voted against Democrats’ infrastructure bill, a cornerstone of President Joe Biden’s agenda. And last year, he pulled a fire alarm in a House office building in what he called an accident but what was believed by some to be an attempt at delaying a vote — an action that earned him a censure and misdemeanor charge.

Opposition to Bowman spiked when video went viral of him saying that stories of sexual violence that took place on Oct. 7 were false “propaganda,” which compiled on ceaseless criticisms of Israel and its military operations in the Gaza Strip. Resurfaced blog posts also revealed a past in trafficking 9/11 conspiracies.

All of that culminated in a 10-figure investment by outside groups opposed to Bowman and helped usher Latimer — a local politician with longstanding support — into the primary.

“[V]oters want members of Congress who are going to bring people together to get things done, not people who are divisive. And there is no question that Jamaal Bowman emerged as an extraordinarily divisive figure, not only on Israel issues, but on other issues as well,” said DMFI President Mark Mellman.

The push against Bowman is just the latest salvo in what is anticipated to be a concerted outside effort to defeat lawmakers who advocate for less support for Israel, with Bush widely anticipated to be the next target.

Like Bowman, Bush is a junior House member and staunch progressive. Where Bowman faced legal headwinds over the fire alarm, Bush is facing a Justice Department probe over her use of campaign funds. House Democratic leaders haven’t signaled that they’ll campaign with Bush, just like they didn’t with Bowman. And, like Latimer, primary opponent Wesley Bell Bell holds local office as the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County.

Seemingly chomping at the bit, DMFI Wednesday touted the results of an internal poll showing Bush virtually tied with Bell.

“You put those two things together, and if you don’t take them as a warning sign, you’re not a very capable politician,” Mellman said, referencing Bowman’s loss and DMFI’s survey. “Cori Bush has the same kind of vituperative, anti-Israel rhetoric, the same kind of anti-Israel votes, the same kind of divisive approach to politics on this issue and on broader Democratic issues.”

Liberals, meanwhile, predicted Bowman’s loss will serve as proof of concept for groups looking to boot progressives.

“They want to make sure that progressives don’t continue to grow power, speak out on Gaza, challenge the party line with Biden, and they wanted to get a head on a stick, and they did. And so, I think the warning sign is there. Will this make them double down? I think so,” added Our Revolution Executive Director Joseph Geevarghese.

Still, it’s possible that Bowman was uniquely vulnerable.

Bowman’s district is significantly more fertile ground for attacks than Bush’s; it boasts a hefty Jewish population and is plurality white. Bush’s district is more urban and about 45% Black, according to Census data.

Bowman also had some presence as a former middle school principal, but Bush rose to local prominence as an activist who played a role in the Ferguson protests after 2014 after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

Moreover, Latimer could prove to be what New York Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf called a “uniquely good candidate.”

And, operatives agreed, Bowman’s initial rape denialism sets him apart from other lawmakers who are critical of Israel’s government and operations in Gaza.

“Much of what occurred to Bowman was political suicide,” said Sheinkopf. “The rape denialism invigorated the anti-Bowmans and set the stage for the value of the kind of expenditure that was done here.”

Mellman also conceded that without Bowman’s particular weaknesses, “it would have been a much closer campaign.”

Moving forward, progressives suggested that candidates can still talk about the war in Gaza, which has left tens of thousands dead, without alienating voters.

“I think she can talk about it. I think Jamaal’s rhetoric got rather intense and turned some people off in the last two months. Loaded terms, like ‘Zionist’ and ‘settler colonial,’ and the conspiracies, I think there’s better rhetoric you can use around the issue to get your point across without being so provocative,” said one New York progressive operative.

Already, pro-Israel outside groups don’t have a perfect record. Rep. Summer Lee, a Pittsburgh-based progressive, handily fended off a well-financed primary challenger in April, though AIPAC and DMFI largely stayed out of that race.

And while progressives took Bowman’s loss as a warning sign, it also could serve as a wakeup call.

“People suggest ‘this is a mortal blow to the anti-Israel progressives within the Democratic Party.’ That does not appear to be the case. People are underselling the Working Families Party, the Democratic Socialists of America and the Justice Democrats. They’re going to redouble their efforts and organize,” Sheinkopf said.

Justice Democrats, one of the nation’s leading progressive groups, is already gearing up for Bush’s race, pushing the Democratic establishment to join it. And other progressives are pushing her to take an aggressive stance against an anticipated flood of funding for Bell.

“Cori Bush’s race is up next,” said spokesperson Usamah Andrabi. “The Democratic Party should put all of its resources behind folks like Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush because they are going to be who leads them to a victory in November.”

“The most important thing for her to do in this moment is to inoculate, and that means to really speak to voters about what is going to come down the pike. ‘You’re going to get inundated with mail and TV advertising that says that I am not fighting for you. I am not fighting for this district, and it’s going to be lies.’ I think that’s the first thing I would take away. We’ve seen their playbook now unfold,” Geevarghese added.

Bush, for her part, appears ready for a fight.

“These same extremists are coming to St. Louis,” Bush said of anti-Bowman outside groups after Tuesday’s race. “We will continue to fight for the future St. Louis deserves and show that organized people beats organized money. Because St. Louis is not for sale.”

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