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Sitting NYC Democrats Under Fire From Their Own

Four Democrats are facing spirited primary challenges — a rarity this cycle

New York Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley is facing a primary challenge for the first time since 2004. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
New York Democratic Rep. Joseph Crowley is facing a primary challenge for the first time since 2004. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Outsize Democratic energy has been directed at unseating Republicans this election cycle, but in New York City, Democrats are taking aim at their own. Four veteran lawmakers are unloading their campaign war chests to fend off intraparty opponents. 

These Democrats aren’t worried about losing their primaries Tuesday. They say they’re simply taking their races seriously. But it’s a new experience for some incumbents, who have rarely faced contested primaries. 

While Democratic primary challengers have been rare so far this cycle, it’s not a surprise that they’re popping up in the liberal bastion of New York City. And the new burst of party enthusiasm following the 2016 presidential election has helped get them some attention.

“I certainly wouldn’t have been able to run this race four years ago,” said Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a 28-year-old organizer for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. She’s taking on House Democratic Caucus Chairman Joseph Crowley in the 14th District.

Ocasio-Cortez said the 2016 election woke up Democrats. She also said frustration over economic struggles and entrenched politicians have been bubbling in the area for some time and has reached a boiling point.

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New York, New York

Sanders showed that small-dollar fundraising and a populist message can be fruitful — and that could provide hope for potential primary challengers looking to take on incumbents, said Neil Sroka, a spokesman for the liberal group Democracy for America.

But so far no nationwide wave of challengers has materialized, in part because much of the focus has been on flipping Republican-held House seats. Plus, a liberal movement that could prompt more Democratic primary challengers is just beginning, Sroka said.

“What you saw in 2010 was the capstone of a 30-year push to push the Republican Party aggressively to the right,” said Sroka, referring to the tea party wave that challenged sitting Republicans. “And we’re only T-minus, maybe two years, into that project in the progressive movement.”

While New York City has a significant number of primary challengers, Crowley suggested there was no solitary reason for that.

“I think it’s healthy to have debate,” he said. “I think there’s very little daylight between myself and my opponent. It’s probably the same for the others as well.”

Others said that primary challenges have popped up in the Big Apple because these districts are so heavily Democratic. Four Democrats — a third of the 12 lawmakers who represent New York City — are facing well-funded challengers, three of whom are young candidates of color.

“You can’t tell young minority candidates, and progressives, ‘Don’t run anywhere there’s an incumbent,’” said California Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, who issued a “dual endorsement” of both Crowley and Ocasio-Cortez. “You would never have change, because most of the places where you’re going to have a young progressives are going to be in places that there are incumbents.”

“So I don’t think it’s fair to say to them, ‘Wait till the baby boomers retire,” said Khanna, who himself previously challenged two incumbent Democrats in primaries. “There is a mood for a new generation of leadership.”

Ocasio-Cortez has generated the most buzz for her bid against Crowley. But in the 9th District, Rep. Yvette D. Clarke faces community organizer Adem Bunkeddeko, who was endorsed by The New York Times. In the 12th District, Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney faces hotel executive Suraj Patel, who had raised $1.2 million as of June 6 (with the majority coming from his home state of Indiana). And in the 16th District, Rep. Eliot L. Engel faces a self-funding opponent, businessman Jonathan Lewis.

Democrats are confident the incumbents are in strong positions, but the challenges have caused these lawmakers to spend sizable amounts of campaign cash.

Crowley had spent $3.4 million this cycle as of June 6. Engel had spent $1.3 million, and Clarke $620,000. Maloney spent $1.3 million in total, though Patel did outspend her in the pre-primary period between April 1 and June 6. 

The primaries have not only been “liberal versus moderate” fights, especially since the incumbents are not considered moderate Democrats. There have been debates about the incumbents’ commitments to their districts, their accomplishments, and whether newer voices are needed in Congress. 

Bunkeddeko said primaries are the only elections to hold incumbents accountable in such safe Democratic seats.

Patel called primaries in these districts “safe experiments.”

“There is zero percent chance that these seats are going to be won by a Republican,” he said. “It would be one thing to primary [Missouri Democratic Sen.] Claire McCaskill and screw ourselves out of a state.”

Ocasio-Cortez said these challenges were also springing up in New York City because voters were fed up with the “toxic” political environment dominated by longtime politicians and frustrated by the soaring costs of living. 

She is the only primary challenger with the backing of national liberal groups. In the final week before the primary, and Democracy for America endorsed her.

Ocasio-Cortez said energy around her campaign has been building for some time, helped along by a two-minute video highlighting her bid, which caught Khanna’s attention. 

She and the other challengers are looking to expand the electorate and boost turnout. In 2016, Democratic primary turnout in these four districts ranged from 30 percent to 44 percent, and that was in a year with a hotly contested presidential primary.

Ocasio-Cortez said she hopes to energize Democratic base voters. Patel said he is focused on turning out young voters and people of color. 

Patel has tried new tactics to engage those voters, creating videos and distributing campaign materials on coffee cup sleeves.

In an interview last week, he decried the “complete lack of imagination and creativity and curiosity” in how Democrats have approached campaigns. Later in the week, a New York Times story chronicled Patel and his volunteers “Tinder banking,” or using online profiles on dating apps, with pictures not always of themselves, to connect with voters.

Asked to respond to criticism that the tactic was deceptive, Patel campaign spokeswoman Lis Smith said the volunteers who participate have Patel’s campaign logo in their profiles. 

“The political establishment may sneer at insurgent campaigns trying new tactics to excite voters, but on this campaign we aren’t snobs about getting people involved in the political process,” Smith said in a statement.

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Insurgent vs. experienced

The Democrats facing insurgent challengers have turned to their experience, touting their records and results for their districts.

Maloney has pointed to her work securing the Second Avenue Subway for the district — a yearslong effort.

Carolyn Maloney is well known to New York 12 residents as a fearless progressive with a tremendous record of delivering for the district,” a campaign spokesperson said.

In a debate on NY1, Clarke confronted Bunkeddeko, saying: “I have personally saved affordable housing in our district. 320 Sterling Street, you ever heard about that? No, because you’re a Johnny-come-lately.”

Bunkeddeko, meanwhile, has criticized Clarke for not being an original sponsor of a single bill that has become law since her election in 2006. Clarke — who unsuccessfully challenged her predecessor, Democrat Major R. Owens, in a 2004 primary — countered that her measures have been incorporated into broader bills and she has co-sponsored other pieces of legislation. She also said Democrats have faced barriers under Republican control.

“His criticisms show that he really doesn’t understand the legislative process,” Clarke campaign spokesman Michael Oliva said.

Crowley has also touted his connections to the district. He pushed back against a scathing New York Times editorial last Tuesday that accused him of taking his voters for granted when he skipped a recent debate with Ocasio-Cortez. (The pair debated two days later.)

“I’m in constant contact with my constituency,” Crowley said off the House floor Thursday. “I look out for the interest of my constituents every day here in Washington.” 

Crowley has the added advantage of being a member of House Democratic leadership, and he has been counted among potential future candidates for speaker or Democratic leader. 

His biography on his campaign website notes that he is “one of the few members ready, willing and able to move up the leadership ladder.”

Ocasio-Cortez said last week that she was recently asked about Crowley’s power at a meeting with more conservative Democrats, who raised the possibility that having a powerful member of Congress could benefit the district.

“The thing that we always say is, ‘Power is good if you’re using it for the right things,’” she said. “What is this power doing for us? It’s not doing anything.”

While the incumbents are ready to highlight their own records and lob charges that their opponents lack experience, spirited primary challenges are not common for these lawmakers.

Crowley has been unopposed in eight of his 10 congressional primaries — he defeated his most recent challenger by 44 points in 2004. 

Clarke has been unopposed in four of her last five primaries since coming to Congress in 2007. Her last primary challenge was six years ago, and she won by 76 points.

Engel has been unopposed in five of the 14 primaries since his first victory in 1988. He defeated his most recent challenger in 2012 by 75 points. 

Maloney faced a contested primary challenge from another 34-year-old in 2010, whom the New York Times described as an “aggressive challenger.” Despite an expensive primary race, she trounced her opponent Reshma Saujani by 66 points. Saujani has endorsed Maloney this year.

Democratic leaders are confident these incumbents will prevail.

“I think everyone will do well,” Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Ben Ray Luján said. “They all work hard. They have a lot of support from their constituencies.”

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