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Jamaal Bowman’s loss signals uncertainty of where the first member of ‘the Squad’ to lose went wrong

WASHINGTON (AP) — When Jamaal Bowman first ran for Congress, he chastised his opponent — a 16-term Democratic congressman who chaired a powerful House committee — as disconnected from his suburban New York district and too focused on foreign policy.

The message helped Bowman defeat incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel and become the first Black man to represent the 16th Congressional District. But four years later, the case he made against Engel ended in his own political demise in one of the nation’s most closely watched primaries, as he became the first member of the progressive band of liberals known as the “Squad” to lose a reelection bid.

“He became the very person he accused Engel of being,” Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran Democratic political consultant, said Wednesday. “Much more engaged in foreign affairs, less engaged in community-based activities. Much more rhetorical, much less constituent services.”

The decisive victory by 70-year-old George Latimer, a white centrist Democrat, handed the left flank its first electoral defeat this cycle, raising concerns about how other incumbents might fare in the coming months and, more broadly, whether progressives are in retreat in Washington.

“The pendulum has swung back,” said Jay Jacobs, chair of the New York Democratic Party. “It’s a clear indication that the Democratic Party has moved toward wanting common sense solutions, common sense governance and wants to favor those candidates, rather than those from the extreme.”

But progressives are warning that Bowman’s defeat should not be seen as much of a bellwether as other factors made his path to reelection difficult. For starters, the district’s boundaries had shifted since Bowman first won office in 2020. Gone were most sections of the Bronx, which included the Black and brown voters crucial to his base, replaced by more of Westchester County’s suburbs.

Bowman, who declined to be interviewed after his loss, had other stumbles in recent years, including an incident in September when he was caught on video triggering a fire alarm in a House building while lawmakers were working on a funding bill. He said the alarm went off by accident when he tried to open a locked door while trying to vote, but Bowman was censured by his colleagues in the House.

But neither of those factors had as much impact, his congressional allies say, as the nearly $15 million the American Israel Public Affairs Committee allied super PAC spent on the race, helping make it the most expensive House primary on record, according to ad tracking firm AdImpact.

“I think all Democrats should be able to see how bad this is for Democratic politics that there’s a huge amount of money coming in to influence a congressional race in a Democratic primary,” Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said in an interview.

With the backing of AIPAC and encouragement from local Jewish leaders to join the race, Latimer managed to oust not only one of the most liberal voices in Congress but one of its most outspoken critics of Israel. Bowman has accused Israel of committing genocide in Gaza, where tens of thousands of Palestinians have died in military strikes since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on southern Israel.

AIPAC and its affiliated super PAC filed airwaves and mailboxes with negative ads aimed at Bowman. He responded by accusing the pro-Israel group of trying to buy the race.

In a statement issued on primary night, AIPAC said the message sent by voters was clear.

“The outcome in this race once again shows that the pro-Israel position is both good policy and good politics — for both parties,” the group said

But Latimer said Bowman’s criticism of Israel was only part of the reason he decided to challenge the incumbent. He said the former middle school principal hadn’t been attentive to the needs of the district, maintained few relationships with its leaders and was more interested in appearing on television than in helping people.

During the campaign, Latimer, who served as a local and state official for three decades in the Westchester County area, said his knowledge of the region and its needs would make him an effective member of Congress. Latimer has said that’s the sort of politics people expect from their elected officials, rather than caustic fights between the far right and far left — a clear dig at Bowman.

Even Jayapal, who leads progressives on Capitol Hill and helps raise money for their political action committee, acknowledged the impact of the war on Bowman’s race.

“I think Jamaal has a much harder district than many other progressives because a big section of the district is extremely wealthy and very connected to certain views about Israel and the Middle East,” the Washington Democrat said. “And then he has another part of the district that is very, very different. And I think it’s true for any member that we have to pay attention to all parts of our district.”

The next incumbent potentially at risk among progressives is Rep. Cori Bush in Missouri. Bush, who like Bowman has been vocal about Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, is facing a wave of spending against her from AIPAC in the August primary race for her St. Louis district.

Jayapal and other progressives insisted Bowman’s loss wouldn’t have sweeping implications for Bush or other progressive Democrats. But even they admitted that Tuesday’s outcome put them on the defensive.

“The message to progressives is, stand by your values but don’t make unnecessary mistakes that can allow you to be singled out by right wing billionaires who want to make an example of someone,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Farnoush Amiri And Anthony Izaguirre, The Associated Press