“That Is an AOC-Level Upset”: The Presumptive Ouster of Eliot Engel Emboldens Progressives

It’s not just two races, either. Elsewhere in New York, the race between Carolyn Maloney, the chairwoman of the House Oversight Committee, and Suraj Patel, a veteran of the Obama administration, will hinge upon absentee ballots. Mondaire Jones, a favorite of the activist left, picked up more than double any other candidate in the crowded primary to replace Nita Lowey in New York’s 17th district. And Ritchie Torres is on track to win a highly contested Bronx congressional seat. (If elected, Jones and Torres would make history as the first openly gay, Black men in Congress.) And arguably, the fact that New York has emerged as ground zero for this progressive groundswell is telling in itself. While it is standard for party leadership to endorse and protect incumbent Democrats, the rise of progressives could be a troubling portent for Pelosi and Schumer.

Tuesday’s successes certainly reflect a better-oiled progressive machine. But the momentum on the left also suggests the Democratic establishment is truly out of touch with voters as the country grapples with a pandemic and widespread protests over racial injustice. “The D-triple-C put a bunch of us on a blacklist last year and we all went out and won races,” Katz told me. (In March of last year, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee implemented a policy meant to protect incumbents by refusing to work with vendors and consultants helping to unseat them.) Ganapathy said the lesson for progressives is, “We shouldn’t write anywhere off, that our ideas are actually popular everywhere and we can win even in some of these deep red states.”

The impact of progressive victories, if they pan out, will be immediate. Not only will the so-called Squad—Congresswomen Ocasio-Cortez, Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib—receive reinforcements, but an Engel loss would leave an opening at the helm of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee, which he chairs. The jockeying to be his successor has already begun. California congressman Brad Sherman has emerged as an early front-runner for the job, given his seniority on the committee. When asked Wednesday about the possibility of succeeding Engel, Sherman stressed that the Engel–Bowman race hasn’t been officially called, despite Bowman declaring victory. “They haven’t counted every ballot,” the California congressman told me. “Engel has not conceded, and Engel is a good friend.” He added, “I’m rooting for the absentee ballots to surprise us.”

When it comes to succession within the Democratic caucus, seniority typically rules. As Sherman has served for decades on the committee and on all six of the foreign affairs subcommittees, precedent makes him the clear choice. “If Sherman gets it, it’s going to be because Democrats are beholden to the seniority process,” a senior Democratic congressional staffer told me. But there is a question as to whether House leadership might go in a different direction. “Bowman ran against Engel on foreign policy…. So now they just fill that spot in with a carbon copy of an Engel? Unclear,” a second congressional staffer told me. “It’s not like Engel just resigned. He lost [to] someone running against his foreign policy platform, which is essentially what the foreign affairs committee has been doing and…has been pretty intertwined with the Democratic establishment. So I think it’s a wake-up call for Democratic leadership.”

Congressman Gregory Meeks is seen as Sherman’s most likely challenger. While the two have relatively similar voting records on foreign policy, Meeks supported the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal whereas Sherman joined Engel in voting against it. (Florida congressman Ted Deutch, who chairs the Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism and has also been floated as a contender for the job, likewise voted against the Iran deal.) Meeks would have the backing of the Congressional Black Caucus if he were to make a play for the seat, though the CBC traditionally has been a vocal proponent of the seniority rule.

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