AIPAC spent more than $14M to unseat Jamaal Bowman. But was that his biggest problem?


At his big closeout rally on Sunday with progressive rockstars Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jamaal Bowman uncorked an avalanche of borough pride and a profanity-filled tirade against AIPAC.

“We are in the South Bronx. This is the birthplace of hip-hop. I am the hip-hop congressman,” Bowman declared. “We are going to show f—ing AIPAC the power of the motherf—ing South Bronx.”

Bowman was referring to the more than $14 million that the pro-Israel lobby’s affiliated super PAC has spent in an effort to oust him — a record-breaking figure in congressional elections.

True to his word, Bowman dominated in the Bronx section of the state’s 16th Congressional District that he represents, capturing 84% of the votes (with more than 95% counted). The only problem is that these days, almost all of his district is in southern Westchester County. None of it is in the actual South Bronx.

So, as expected based on earlier polling, Bowman was soundly defeated Tuesday night in the Democratic primary by Westchester County Executive George Latimer.

For months, national analysis of the race has framed it as a proxy fight in the wider intra-Democratic Party battle over Israel. Much of the focus has been on AIPAC’s spending to unseat Bowman, as well as the congressman’s increasingly harsh criticism of Israel and its allies, in step with the progressive Squad of which he is a member. In retrospect, though, the more telling development was J Street’s decision back in January to pull its endorsement of Bowman. Not because J Street had the ability to shift meaningful numbers of votes, but because its backtracking was a powerful signal of just how much trouble Bowman was in.

J Street’s raison d’etre is to counter AIPAC’s influence and provide lawmakers with pro-Israel Jewish cover to advocate for more aggressive U.S. efforts to bring about a two-state solution. So if J Street decided it could no longer stick with Bowman, clearly he was facing an uphill climb to hang on to supporters of Israel in his district, wherever they fall on the pro-Israel spectrum.

The deeper issue is that Bowman – unlike fellow Squad member Ocasio-Cortez – represents what is now an almost entirely suburban district. And a heavily Jewish one to boot.

When Bowman defeated longtime incumbent and staunch AIPAC ally Eliot Engel in the 2020 primary, 59% of voters came from the Westchester portion of the district and 41% from the Bronx. By the 2022 primary, following redistricting that left Bowman representing just a sliver of the Bronx, the Westchester share of the vote had skyrocketed to 94%. While the final court-mandated, chaos-unleashing new district map led to the demise of multiple Democratic incumbents, Bowman survived his first reelection primary, defeating a collection of challengers with 54% of the vote overall and 52% of the vote in Westchester – about the same as in 2020.

The good news for Bowman that year: In a chaotic local primary season that saw several other incumbents go down due to redistricting, the congressman didn’t lose any ground. The bad news: After two years in office and with no formidable challenger on the ballot, he didn’t gain any, either.

Bowman’s tricky balancing act between his progressive politics and his reconstituted district appeared to become impossible following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel, the subsequent war in Gaza, and the clashes across the country between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian activists. In the initial days after Oct. 7, he condemned the attacks – as well as an Oct. 8 pro-Palestinian rally organized in Times Square by the Democratic Socialists of America that critics saw as a celebration of the previous day’s attack. An unnamed ally, meanwhile, reportedly said that Bowman had let his DSA membership lapse.

As the war progressed, Bowman’s focus shifted. He repeatedly accused Israel of “genocide” and expressed doubt about reports of sexual violence committed by Hamas (though he recently apologized for that statement). And Bowman secured the DSA’s endorsement, after a May 26 meeting in which, according to a recording obtained by The New York Times, he told his fellow Democratic Socialists that he now opposed funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system and that he would be coming out soon in favor of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

In her speech at the rally, AOC pushed the argument – popular in progressive circles – that AIPAC was an interloper, with no care for the district, and this race was a battle between big money and local organizing. But in many ways it was Bowman who portrayed himself as being a standard bearer for a wider movement, with Latimer pitching himself as the one with deep district ties.

The contrast was evident on their respective endorsement pages, with Bowman playing up his backing from various state and national activist groups, and Latimer boasting nods from a diverse set of local figures, most of them fellow officeholders in the district. And it was on display in their election night speeches: Latimer talked about representing people of all types in the district and local politicians getting things done. Bowman went wide. “This movement has never been about one person,” the defeated incumbent told supporters. “This movement was never just about me. It was never just about New York 16. It was never just about this race, this moment.”

The net result was that this time around it was Bowman facing increasing claims that he was an incumbent out of step with a changed district. Sure enough, with about 90% of the vote in, Bowman support was down to 41%, the same amount registered by Engel back in 2020.

As for organizing, Latimer’s victory came with a major increase in turnout, with total votes more than doubling to a projected total of about 86,000. Bowman was once again dominant in the Bronx, though down from the 91% he won in 2022. The big hit came in Westchester, where the latest returns show him losing 63%-37% – a drop of about 15 points.

The defining moment of Engel’s failed 2020 reelection campaign, fueling the view that he was hopelessly out of touch with his district, came just a week after George Floyd’s murder and several weeks before the primary, at a local event about the unrest sweeping the country. Not knowing he was being recorded by a local TV channel, Engel asked Ruben Diaz Jr., the Bronx borough president, for a chance to speak, saying, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”

No “hot mic” was needed this time around to underscore the disconnect between the incumbent and large portions of his district.

At the big rally Sunday — held outside his district – Bowman proudly let the cheering crowd know where he stood, leading supporters in a “ceasefire now” chant.

“We are not going to stand silent as U.S. tax dollars kill babies and women and children,” Bowman said. “My opponent supports genocide. My opponent and AIPAC are the ones destroying our democracy. And it is on us, and it is on all of us, to save our democracy and save our collective humanity.”

Despite his repeated odes to collective humanity and collective liberation, Bowman made no mention of the 1,200 people killed in Israel by Hamas on Oct. 7 or the scores of hostages still being held by the terrorist organization.

“AIPAC is scared to death,” Bowman told the crowd. “That is why they are spending record amounts of money in this race.”


The (15) million-dollar question is: Did AIPAC’s spending make a meaningful difference?

Axios quoted Rep. Jerrold Nadler, a longtime liberal pro-Israel Democratic stalwart, claiming it was “not necessary for AIPAC to spend so much money,” because Bowman was “sufficiently out of step with the district” and would have lost even with Latimer receiving much less financial support.

Other Democrats referenced in the same report say that wasn’t necessarily the point, with at least one unnamed senior Democrat framing the group’s big spend as a warning shot to other lawmakers. A different unnamed Democratic House member suggested the tactic made perfect sense. “What AIPAC is doing here is they see a vulnerable member they don’t like on their issue and they go after them,” the lawmaker said, adding, “Whatever you think of [AIPAC], they’re pretty intelligent. They’ve got some skin in this in the sense that if Bowman wins, that’s egg on their face. They’re very strategic.”

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