Jamaal Bowman’s lonely island

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NEW YORK — Rep. Jamaal Bowman is on a political island, and pro-Israel groups want to keep him there.

A constellation of super PACs has begun uncorking millions to defeat the Squad member as he faces a tough primary challenge from George Latimer, a pro-Israel Democrat with high name recognition in a suburban enclave outside New York City.

The spending includes a $1.9 million ad blitz last week from a super PAC allied with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and $600,000 in contributions from AIPAC itself. Local efforts are also underway: a six-figure push by a new Westchester County-based super PAC and an estimated $1 million by a different Westchester organization registering formerly Republican Jewish voters as Democrats — presumably people favoring Latimer in the closed-primary state of New York.

The money allows Latimer — a challenger running like an incumbent — to all but avoid mentioning Israel as he digs into issues closer to home, while keeping Bowman on his heels as he seeks his third term.

The primary for the House district that encompasses diverse, working-class cities and wealthy towns on the Long Island Sound is one of the most closely watched in the nation. And in an area with a large Jewish population, the fight is viewed as a bellwether for voters’ fervency over the ongoing Israel-Hamas war — a fast-changing conflict that President Joe Biden is contending with as he tries to court young progressives.

The hits on Bowman come as he tries to sand down the rough edges of his criticism of Israel. He trumpeted in a recent debate, for instance, both his trip there and his agreement with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer that Benjamin Netanyahu should no longer be prime minister. He says Hamas "should be condemned."

But the tempered rhetoric has not dissuaded the opposition to a candidate who questioned charges of rape after Oct. 7.

“Jamaal Bowman holds radical, anti-Israel views that don’t reflect his district or the views of President Biden,” Patrick Dorton, spokesperson for the AIPAC-aligned United Democracy Project, said in an interview. “He refused to condemn Hamas on the House floor and traffics in conspiracy theories. We are going to be active in this race.”

Bowman’s political coalition — from the left-leaning Working Families Party to the more moderate Rep. Hakeem Jeffries to the influential health care workers union 1199 SEIU — has yet to show the kind of force Latimer’s backers have brought to bear.

And his allies acknowledge they are outgunned. 

“We’re definitely scrappy here,” Jews for Jamaal organizer Sophie Ellman-Golan said.

Bowman roused a small but fired-up crowd of union members Saturday in the Co-op City section of the Bronx, where he was joined Rep. Nydia Velázquez and City Comptroller Brad Lander — progressive mainstays in city politics. Speakers at the “Fight Back Against AIPAC for Bowman” rally took turns excoriating U.S. funding for Israel amid the war in Gaza.

“This campaign is about values,” said Velázquez, whose support could boost him with Latino voters. “You can count on Jamaal to never compromise when it comes to the defense of humanity.”

A former middle school principal, Bowman unseated longtime Rep. Eliot Engel in 2020. At the time, he was a political newcomer willing to embrace bombast when pushing left-leaning causes. Latimer, the Westchester County executive, has been in elected office for four decades and retains significant support from moderate suburban Democrats among whom he has deep ties.

Bowman is relying on a network of left-leaning groups and supporters like the Working Families Party, which typically endorses insurgent candidates over establishment figures.

“Democratic voters should know the GOP extreme right is backing Georger Latimer in this campaign,” Jasmine Gripper, co-director of the New York Working Families Party, said. “It’s extremely problematic.”

Some of Bowman’s backers see virtue in their structural disadvantage in this race.

“Frankly, I think many voters start to tune out once they see this level of resources poured into something,” 1199 interim political director Helen Schaub said in an interview, adding that they’ll want to hear directly from members of their community instead. "I think we have a decent shot.”

Schaub said the union’s 7,600 registered Democratic members in the congressional district will mobilize family, friends and neighbors ahead of the June 25 primary.

And other organizers are planning expansive door-knocking and phone-banking efforts on Bowman’s behalf relying heavily on volunteers.

“We are outmatched when it comes to funding,” said Ellman-Golan, a spokesperson for Jews for Jamaal who is also with Jews for Racial & Economic Justice. “But we have people power, and we have a better candidate.”

Latimer’s campaign has pushed back on the claim he’s the only candidate receiving outside help in the race and criticized the “huge dark money support” Bowman has received for his reelection bid.

That includes $300,000 in attack mailers from the Justice Democrats PAC, including one slamming Latimer for being propped up by “right-wing, Trump-loving” Republicans.

Meanwhile Bowman has secured the backing of prominent Democrats in New York, but some of the most high-profile have yet to hit the trail for him.

Jeffries, the House minority leader from Brooklyn, endorsed Bowman in March and helped shape a recent round of congressional redistricting in February that ultimately tweaked the boundaries of Bowman’s district to include Co-Op City. The move could provide a slight advantage to Bowman.

But Jeffries has yet to get further involved in the race in a public way, and his spokespeople did not answer questions on how else he intends to help the incumbent over the next five weeks.

Bowman and Latimer are trying to limit talking about the war in Gaza. The issue is nevertheless playing a central role in the primary, which has thrown into relief the stark differences among Democrats over support for Israel seven months into the unrest.

Bowman, a consistent Israel critic during much of his time in office, has shone a spotlight on the Palestinian mass casualties in the war. He visited Columbia University’s campus last month in a show of solidarity with pro-Palestinian demonstrators. The Yonkers Democrat in the primary’s first televised debate said he does not believe “from the river to the sea” — a chant widely associated with campus protests — is hate speech. Latimer disagreed and said it was clearly about the "eradication of the Jewish population from the land of Israel."

Evolving views over civilian deaths in Gaza and the uncertainty over the broader Israel-U.S. relationship could move Bowman’s views closer to the Democratic mainstream — a lane he needs to straddle in order to win, his supporters said.

“Jamaal’s position is now in line with a majority of what New Yorkers and Americans want to see with the conflict,” said Theo Oshiro, co-executive director of the left-leaning advocacy group Make the Road New York. “His stance is more in line with what people want to see right now.”

The district’s large Jewish and growing Arab population are expected to play an important role in the race. Latimers' allies are trying to get voters to take a longer view of Bowman’s rhetoric to go beyond criticism of the war, which they contend is out of step with voters in the House district.

“I don’t think this race should be viewed through the prism of Oct. 7,” Jake Dilemani, a Democratic consultant who is working on an effort to turn out Jewish voters and is unaffiliated with the Latimer campaign. “It should be viewed through the prism of peoples’ records. Bowman’s record has been insufficiently representative of his own district.”

Latimer treads lightly on the issue on the campaign trail. He opposes a cease-fire unless every Israeli hostage kidnapped by Hamas is returned, but has declined to say whether Netanyahu’s right-wing government should be replaced. And he questioned the Israeli military after soldiers killed seven relief workers from World Central Kitchen last month.

Latimer insisted in his debate with Bowman that weighing in on the complex, multi-country negotiations would be counterproductive.

His TV ads have strategically struck broader themes for Democratic voters, emphasizing his support for infrastructure projects and abortion rights. The thinking, according to Latimer’s campaign and his supporters, is that pro-Israel voters in the district know enough about Bowman’s statements and record on Israel to render further persuasion unnecessary.

At the same time, staying consistent on supporting the release of the hostages while refraining from commenting on Israel’s conduct of the war itself won’t alienate those same voters, Latimer allies have argued.

Still, it’s difficult to gauge at this point in the race how voters will weigh the fast-moving events in the Middle East. There has been no public polling in the district, which is considered a safe one for Democrats in November.

But statewide in New York, views on Israel have changed since Hamas' deadly Oct. 7 attack. A Siena College poll last month found a plurality of Democrat voters, 42 percent, oppose more U.S. aid for Israel, a sharp decline from 57 percent support last year.

Support for Israel has been a longstanding tenet of New York politics. But Democrats are increasingly anxious that heightened criticism of the Jewish state from within their own party — as well as protesters on college campuses — will aid Republicans this year.

Democratic former Gov. David Paterson, a Latimer endorser, believes a combination of Israel critics like Bowman and widespread campus demonstrations could ultimately hurt the party come election time.

“This could be a big problem,” Paterson said in an interview. “And it could be to the benefit of Donald Trump when he runs for president in November.”