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.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

What Went On Downballot Tonight

A bunch of states held primaries today, but for the most part they weren't too interesting. The biggest news by far was the defeat of White supremacist (and former Ted Cruz presidential campaign chair) Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King, who was ousted by State Sen. Randy Feenstra. While this probably locks the normally solid red seat up for the GOP (unless King runs as an independent), most progressives still cheered the defeat of the most avowedly racist member of Congress.

Aside from that, though, there were very few marquee races. Incumbents won, generally quite handily. Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D), who defeated former Rep. Elijah Cummings' widow in a special election a few months ago, repeated the feat in tonight's primary to win the Democratic nomination in Maryland's 7th congressional district. There was some barking by the left at targeting House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, but he crushed progressive challenger with little trouble. Over in Pennsylvania, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, one of the few House Republicans who still can kinda-sorta gesture at being a moderate, looks like he managed to turn back a challenge from his right -- he's up 56/44 with just over half reporting (this seat will be a Democratic target come November).

So barring major action in the federal races, is there anything worth reporting further down the ballot? Potentially.

Start in Massachusetts, which had two State House special elections tonight. Democrats held the HD-37 in Middlesex, and, perhaps more importantly, flipped a Republican seat (HD-3) in Bristol. This follows on the heels of Democrats flipping to Massachusetts State Senate seats from red to blue a few weeks ago. While this has no immediate impact on the Bay State political arena -- Democrats enjoy commanding leads in both legislative chambers -- it still represents good news. The Bristol seat is one where Democrats have historically done well at the top of the ballot but have struggled in more local races; if voters of this ilk are becoming more solidly blue, that can only be a good thing.

Moving over to New Mexico, where a slate of progressive challengers sought to tackle right-wing incumbent Democrats who had joined Republicans to block reproductive rights legislation. In the State Senate, it looks like at least three Democratic incumbents have been defeated, in the 5th, 28th, and 35th Senate districts. Another two races, the 30th district and the 38th district (where the incumbent is State Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen) are too close to call. Also in New Mexico, Teresa Leger Fernandez defeated Valarie Plame to become the Democratic nominee for the third congressional district, vacated by Rep. Ben Lujan (D). I'm not sad about this result.

Montana kind of was a New Mexico in reverse, with the state GOP divided between a moderate "Solutions Caucus" wing (which has been working with legislative Democrats and incumbent Democratic Governor Steve Bullock) and a hard-line ".38 Special" group, which views cooperation as an anathema. Members of both groups faced primary challenges from the other wing, and the overall results were mixed.

Right-wing challengers targeted two moderate state Senators as well as ten state Representatives. On the Senate side, they split (ousting the incumbent in the SD-28 but falling short in the SD-10). In the House, they won in the HD-35, HD-37, and HD-68 but lost in the HD-7, HD-14, HD-21, HD-39, HD-70, HD-86 and HD-88. Meanwhile, centrist challengers took on four .38 special incumbents in the state House, defeating two. The moderates prevailed in the HD-9 and HD-75, while the conservative incumbents hung on the HD-10 and HD-11. Overall, close to a wash.

Our final stop tonight is Pennsylvania, where a bunch of Democratic incumbents appear to be in trouble, but I've yet to find a clear story as to why. Well, that's not wholly true -- in the SD-17, the incumbent is facing sexual harassment allegations, which probably has a lot to do with his troubles. But Democratic incumbents are also trailing in the SD-1 (Farnese), HD-20 (Ravenstahl), HD-182 (Sims), HD-185 (Donatucci), HD-188 (Roebuck), and HD-190 (Green). So far, I haven't found a clear through narrative for these races akin to what we're seeing in New Mexico or Montana. Of the endangered incumbents, Sims is probably the highest profile -- he recently went viral after accusing Republican colleagues of hiding a positive coronavirus diagnosis from House Democrats, placing them in danger. A lot of votes are still being tabulated because they were sent by mail, so I've been cautioned that some of the closer races (including Sims') may change.

Oh, one last thing: in Iowa, just one incumbent lost her primary race -- longtime Democratic state Rep. Vicki Lensing was ousted by University of Iowa law professor Christina Bohannan. I have no idea what these means politically, but I'm always happy to see law professors succeed in their life projects.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Are Americans Grasping the Reality of Police Violence?

As the nation continues to be gripped by protests against police brutality, I've been struck by the near-constant footage of excessive police force against journalists and civilians who seem to be doing nothing more than exercising their constitutional rights. For me, it powerfully communicates the reality of a central theme of the protests: that the police are out of control and are acting as a tool of repression and violence against the Americans they nominally are there to protect.

But my vantage is only a partial one, and I've been waiting to see evidence about how the American people as a whole are reacting. We all still are living in the shadow of 1968, and there is the constant fear that the narrative that emerges will be one where the police are the victims and "law and order" must be restored. Is that what's happening?

Today, Kevin Drum links to new polling that gives cause for optimism: Asked over the weekend whether "police violence against the public" or "violence against the police" was a more serious problem, Americans picked the former by a 55/30 margin. Independents answered at roughly the same margin -- 54/27. Even White Americans agreed by a 50/35 margin (for Black Americans, the gap was a whopping 85/8).

It's just one poll, and just one question. But it does seem to point to a potential sea change (also on that note: a Minneapolis city councilor talking seriously about trying to disband the Minneapolis Police Department outright).

Meanwhile, it's primary night in several states across America -- off-hand, none of the marquee races seem like they'd be particularly impacted by the protests (maybe the effort to take out White Supremacist GOP Rep. Steve King), but I suppose we'll see.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Eighth Circuit Absolves Another Minnesota Police Killing

On Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit handed down its opinion in Kong v. City of Burnsville, a case regarding the killing by Burnsville police of an Asian-American man in the midst of a mental health crisis (Burnsville is a suburb of Minneapolis). The district court had denied qualified immunity to the officers, allowing the case to go to trial. On appeal, however, the Eighth Circuit (by 2-1 vote) reversed, holding that the officers' conduct did not violate clearly established law.

The facts of the case are complicated. Early one morning, Burnsville police received a report of suspicious activity in a McDonald's parking lot. A man (Kong) had been spotted sitting in his car for thirty minutes, waving a knife and jumping around. Officers arrived and at first passively monitored the situation. Then they asked the man to put down the knife; he was unresponsive. It was pretty evident that he was undergoing a mental health crisis, but he had not committed any felonies and did not appear to be an immediate threat to anyone.

Eventually, police broke the windows of his car and tased Kong twice. Kong did not drop the knife; he stumbled out of the car and broke out running towards the street where traffic was still driving by. At that point, police officers opened fire, striking and killing him (one bullet lodged in the bumper of a passing vehicle).

The majority held that it was not clearly established that the police could not open fire in this scenario. They contended instead that the officers reasonably perceived Kong as posing an imminent safety threat to the civilians driving by. Judge Kelly, in dissent, pointed out that it was obvious that Kong was undergoing a mental health crisis and he had never threatened anyone, and that in any event people in cars would not be in especial danger from someone holding a knife. A jury could therefore conclude that the decision to open fire on Kong was excessive.

I personally think this is legally a close case -- though close cases I think are generally best left to juries rather than plucked out by judges. But given the current circumstances in the Twin Cities and around the country, I thought it was noteworthy that this case was handed down this Friday, and wanted to give out the facts.