Longtime incumbent Eliot Engel trails Jamaal Bowman in New York House primary

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Jamaal Bowman isn’t claiming victory just yet in his high-profile challenge of Congressman Eliot Engel, a 31-year-incumbent and chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but Bowman has a strong early lead. 

He was ahead of Engel by 20 points late Tuesday night, though over half the precincts remained to be counted. In any case, his strong showing in New York’s 16th District is an encouraging sign for progressive Democrats, who helped recruit for and supported Bowman’s campaign in the months leading up to the primary. 

“Eliot Engel used to say he was a thorn in the side of Donald Trump, but you know what Donald Trump is more afraid of than anyone, anything else? A black man with power,” Bowman said in his primary night speech. 

“If the results continue to bear out, and we get to Congress, it will be our job to hold Donald Trump accountable and to hold every politician accountable that continues to be beholden to corporate interests … and is not fighting for the poor and the working class in our country.”

Bowman campaign officials said they were surprised he’s leading in precincts where Engel was expected to have strong support.

Engel’s campaign said it didn’t expect the race to be decided Tuesday night because there are “way too many absentee votes outstanding.” State law mandates any submitted absentee ballots in New York will begin to be counted eight days after Election Day. Ballots received by June 30 will also be counted, as long as they were postmarked by June 23. 

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, absentee ballot applications were sent to every registered voter. That could benefit incumbents with support in wealthier areas like parts of Manhattan, since a significant number of people from those areas left their homes early in the outbreak. 

At least 1,857,638 absentee ballots were sent out in the state this year, a vast increase over the approximately 115,000 that were cast in the 2016 presidential primaries. More than 708,000 absentee ballot requests came from New York City, according to the city’s Board of Elections.

Almost 100,000 Democratic absentee ballots were sent out by the Westchester County Board of Elections, with at least 86,836 sent out in the Bronx. The 16th district encompasses parts of Westchester and north Bronx. 

Bowman’s campaign mirrors Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2018 run against Congressman Joe Crowley, a progressive campaign that painted the incumbent as absent and an awkward fit with the New York City district. 

“This is that moment for all of us, and the results show that this district is demanding change. This is what this district has been waiting for, this is what this country has been waiting for,” Bowman added.

A former Bronx school principal, Bowman was boosted in the months leading up to the election by a combination of gaffes by Engel and a slate of endorsements from Ocasio-Cortez, and Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. It didn’t help Engel that in May, an Atlantic reporter caught him in a lie about being in his district for a coronavirus-related event. Weeks later, during a Bronx news conference about recent protests over police brutality Engel was caught on an open microphone asking to be allowed to address the crowd, saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”

In New York’s 12th District, challenger Suraj Patel is in a close race with Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the House Oversight Committee. She beat Patel by almost 20 points in 2018. But early results show Patel leading in the Queens and Brooklyn parts of the district, and trailing Maloney slightly in Manhattan.

In an election night statement, Patel said, “We are confident in our path to victory after a very strong performance on Election Day, which traditionally favors establishment voters. Over 58% of New Yorkers have rejected the incumbent’s politics of the past. We have a mandate for change, and the final tally will reflect that.”

City Councilman Ritchie Torres is handily winning in an open seat in New York’s 15th District. He’s leading Ruben Diaz Sr., a controversial pastor who has supported Republicans and invited President Trump to his church. 

In the 17th District, lawyer Mondaire Jones is leading the race for Congresswoman Nita Lowey’s former seat. 

In New York’s 14th District, Ocasio-Cortez cruised by in her primary challenge from former journalist Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, who spent $1 million on her own campaign and was backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

New York City saw several problems with polling locations on Tuesday, with many voters going on social media criticizing delayed openings and the distribution of incorrect ballot sets. About 30,000 voters also didn’t receive their absentee ballots in time, forcing them to vote in person early or on primary day. 

Perry Grossman, a voting rights lawyer for the New York ACLU, said that while the Board of Elections had to deal with an unprecedented number of absentee ballots, Tuesday showed “some major, major faults.”

“This is a massive stress test for elections nationally and probably New York in particular. And there are real faults in the system that we have to address,” he said.

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