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A deep dive into the Bowman loss

Jul 08,2024 - Last updated at Jul 08,2024

Last week, New York Democratic Representative Jamaal Bowman was defeated in his bid for a third term. Media analysts describing the outcome only scratched the surface of why and how this happened and its consequences for future elections.

Pro-Israel groups, acknowledging a combined $25 million dollars spent to defeat Bowman, tried to play it two ways. On the one hand, they gloated that their involvement proved decisively that “being pro-Israel was good policy and good politics”. They sent a message of fear to other candidates: “If you cross us, we’ll get you too.”  On the other hand, they downplayed their role, suggesting Bowman’s loss was due to his “radicalism”, with voters preferring the “centrist” candidate, negatively comparing Bowman’s passion with the staider demeanour of his opponent, County Executive George Latimer.

The media deduced that pro-Israel groups won, progressives lost and supporting Palestinian rights was electorally dangerous. This, however, ignored a deeper story.

First and foremost, it was about the huge amounts of money spent, why and how it was used, and its impact. The $25 million pro-Israel groups spent to defeat Bowman was by far the most ever expended in a congressional primary, used mainly for negative advertising and direct mail attacks smearing Bowman’s character and criticising his style. The ads made virtually no mention of Israel.

Voters were nightly subjected to more than a half-dozen attack ads, creating the impression of Bowman as a flawed individual and unworthy candidate. One observer told me, “If Jamaal’s mother had stayed home watching this negative onslaught, she wouldn’t have voted for her son either.”  That’s the role of negative ads: to damage the targeted candidates, to discourage their supporters from voting on Election Day. It’s simply an expensive form of voter suppression.

In reality, Latimer’s “radicalism” outpaced Bowman’s, with outrageous, racially tinged comments that could have been used against him. But Bowman didn’t have $25 million to define and destroy Latimer’s character. Thus, the impression of Bowman as a loose cannon and Latimer as the responsible candidate stuck. Racism also played a role as the contest became “the angry, frightening young black man versus the calm, thoughtful older white guy”.

Why the money was raised should also be considered. Pro-Israel groups are running scared, losing the public debate over policy, especially among Democrats. Most Democrats are deeply opposed to Israeli policies in Gaza and the Occupied Palestinian lands. Majorities want a ceasefire and an end to settlements, and to stop further arms shipments to Israel.

Knowing this, pro-Israel groups’ campaigns are never referendums on Israel. Instead, they focus on their opponents’ character. When they win, they claim it as a victory for Israel and support for its policies, which it most decidedly is not.

Another factor in this contest largely ignored by commentators was last year’s redistricting of Bowman’s district (by a statewide committee including Latimer). The new district removed areas more favorable to Bowman and included new areas more favorable to Latimer, making Bowman vulnerable and providing pro-Israel groups the opportunity to play in this race and make it look like they won on the merits.

Historically they only go after vulnerable candidates, leaving alone other equally strong pro-Palestinian, but less vulnerable, members of Congress. This cowardly approach gives them bragging rights they use to establish a veneer of invincibility.

Examining their donors, we find that while largely supporters of Israel, many of the largest contributors are billionaire Republicans who love meddling in a Democratic primary helping to defeat progressive candidates. Unregulated “dark money” increasingly playing a role in primaries ought to set off alarms. Twice I tried and failed to get the Democratic Party to ban such “dark money” funds, warning that other powerful lobbies will make use of this tactic in the future. Left unchecked, America’s democracy, already distorted by big money, will be swamped and destroyed by billionaires, with elections just a game for manipulating voters.

One final observation for Democrats: While Bowman was defeated, support for Palestinian rights continues to grow, as does the resentment of voters who favored Bowman and other targeted members of Congress. Joseph Biden needs these voters to win in November. Left unaddressed, the party may lose a sufficient number of their base who resent the party establishment’s failure to stop the genocide in Gaza and to defend progressive champions like Jamaal Bowman. In this light, “Israel’s win” in the Bowman contest may negatively impact Democrats’ chances for victory in November.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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