Thursday, June 04, 2020

How Endangered is Eliot Engel?

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) has been in Congress for over thirty years. In that time, he's been a pretty standard-issue New York Jewish Democrat -- generally progressive, solidly pro-Israel, slowly working his way up the ranks (he's currently Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee).

This year, however, he's facing a spirited primary challenge from middle school educator Jamaal Bowman. Is this the next AOC-shocker (AOC just endorsed Bowman, as it happened)?

On the one hand: First, Engel would have to be an absolute idiot to be sleeping on this race -- especially given the AOC example from last cycle. So while I'm not versed in exactly what's going on in New York campaigning, I have to assume he's putting out ads and has his campaign apparatus in gear. Engel has the endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus, which can only help him, and he also has a very large war chest to spend.

Moreover, there actually haven't been that many House Democratic incumbents that have gone down in defeat this cycle, despite a lot of online energy propping up this or that left-wing challenger. For example, there were plenty of people excitedly chatting up Mckayla Wilkes' challenge to House  Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, but earlier this week Hoyer beat her by almost 60 points. We have to remember: online energy doesn't usually translate into actual votes. The main counterexample this year was Marie Newman's defeat of Dan Lipinski in Illinois -- but Lipinski is far to the right of his district and was already shown to be vulnerable when he barely won renomination in 2018. Engel, by contrast, has a largely progressive voting record and has not shown much prior vulnerability.

On the other hand: The energy I'm seeing on Bowman's behalf does seem qualitatively different from those of other seemingly analogous challengers-from-the-left. He gained a boost when another left-leaning challenger dropped out and endorsed him, which will help consolidate the anti-Engel vote. Bowman's also getting outside support from AOC, the Justice Democrats, and the Working Family's Party, which will partially (though not entirely) off-set Engel's financial edge.

Meanwhile, Engel had a major mic gaffe the other day, when he said that "if he didn't have a primary he wouldn't care" about not being given the opportunity to speak at an anti-police brutality press conference. While the remark is pretty clearly being taken out of context (he was saying the primary is why he cared about being denied a speaking slot, not that the primary is why he cared about police brutality issues), politics isn't fair and Bowman's gained huge momentum off the gaffe.

The other big wild card is how the coronavirus epidemic and anti-police brutality protests will effect the race. Normally, the conventional wisdom is that anything that disrupts traditional campaigning helps the incumbent, because it's the challenger who has to overcome inertia. But in this case, I can very easily see these issues congealing into a generic anti-status quo sentiment among Democratic primary voters, a sense that what we have now just isn't working, and that could easily be directed (fairly or not) against an entrenched incumbent like Engel. My gut instinct is that Engel will not benefit from the chaos and uncertainty.

The primary is June 23, and right now I don't really have a prediction. Let's see what develops.

1 comment:

chicago teamster said...
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