Jamaal Bowman’s loss is about him — but it’s also about the Squad

Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) became the first member of the Squad to lose his primary on Tuesday evening. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images) (Getty Images)
Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY) became the first member of the Squad to lose his primary on Tuesday evening. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images) (Getty Images)

On a Friday in November 2021, members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus huddled for hours, agonizing about whether to vote to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill without simultaneously passing President Joe Biden’s ambitious social spending and climate bill, Build Back Better. Members cycled in and out and progressive House members left their phones on the table so nobody could leak.

In the end, the progressive caucus chose to pass the bipartisan bill and all but six members voted against it: Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Cori Bush of Missouri, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Jamaal Bowman of New York.

A few weeks later, Bowman spoke to The Independent about how events looked to vindicate him. Senator Joe Manchin, the conservative Democrat from West Virginia who had hemmed and hawed for months, seemed wobbly in his support for the bill and a few days later, he announced his opposition to Build Back Better. Bowman and the Squad as a whole were right — passing the infrastructure bill gave away an important bargaining chip to pass a piece of historic legislation.

Other events would ultimately further prove Bowman and the Squad correct. Manchin and fellow traveler Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona quit the Democratic Party to become independents. Both of them would then announce their retirements, after spending much of Biden’s presidency obstructing his agenda.

But rather than Manchin or Sinema facing repercussions, Bowman lost his primary in New York’s 16th district on Tuesday evening. His loss comes largely in response to his opposition to Israel’s war against Hamas and his support for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Bowman came to Congress after knocking off a decades-long incumbent in Representative Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Countless Democrats had backed Engel; Bowman’s victory was a huge upset at the time. But now, the Democratic establishment in the Empire State and beyond has struck back. And it shows that even when progressives vote largely in line with the establishment and even when they can sometimes pull off shockers while the establishment is napping, the left lacks the infrastructure to protect their leaders, particularly when they have vulnerable incumbents.

Pro-Israel groups including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s super PAC poured more than $14 million into this contest in a successful effort to unseat Bowman, making it the most expensive primary race in US history. But his stance on Israel only accounts for one reason why AIPAC and pro-Israel groups targeted him. Most of the ads, including the ones that AIPAC’s super PAC the United Democracy Project ran, did not focus on his support for Palestinians or his criticism of Israel. Rather, they zeroed in on his vote against the infrastructure bill, saying he “refuses to compromise, even with President Biden.”

“Part of it is skill, part of it’s dumb luck,” one senior pro-Israel Democratic strategist told The Independent before the primary, when referencing how well their attacks on Bowman had landed. The strategist noted how fellow Squad member Summer Lee of Pennsylvania survived her primary in April — but she only came to Congress in 2023, after the vote on the bipartisan bill had occurred, and pro-Israel groups did not spend to take her out.

The ads also slammed Bowman for opposing a deal to raise the debt limit last year, even though it was Republicans who forced the Biden White House to broker spending cuts, which led to Bowman opposing it.

Indeed, Bowman pushed back on the idea that Republicans had “schooled” Biden at the time, telling The Independent, “Hell no” and, “The president kicked McCarthy's behind. McCarthy’s trying to cut trillions over ten years. The president shut that down. Listen he was in a lose-lose situation.”

That public support of Biden did not ultimately matter. Bowman’s votes against legislation Biden had brokered on two occasions were enough to make him look disloyal. And it would be remiss of me not to mention that his conduct in Congress didn’t help him, either: He drew unwanted attention to himself when he pulled the fire alarm durng a House vote. It was a foolish decision that earned him an official censuring from Republicans.

Bowman’s neighboring progressive colleague Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who represents an urban district in the Bronx and Queens, did not face outside money from AIPAC, Democratic Majority for Israel or other groups.

“It's not that we agree with her, just that nothing we do is gonna make a huge difference at this point in that race,” the pro-Israel Democratic strategist told The Independent.

The same could be said for Rashida Tlaib, who is Palestinian American, and whom AIPAC and others have accused of being antisemitic (an accusation Tlaib strongly denies) for her position on Israel. But Tlaib’s time in the state legislature as well as the fact she represents a large Arab-American population means she’s effectively untouchable.

Progressives face significant hurdles to securing power that their conservative Tea Party and MAGA equivalents face; namely, they lack deep-pocketed donors and by virtue of their running insurgent campaigns against the establishment, often lack the deep ties to the party that help them build lasting resources.

This comes despite the fact polling shows many Democrats and many Americans as a whole oppose Israel’s actions in Gaza — which may explain why the ads from AIPAC did not focus on Israel.

But now, the establishment has a blueprint for vulnerable incumbents. They will likely use the same template for Cori Bush in Missouri, who faces a well-funded opponent in Wesley Bell.