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6 takeaways from the big progressive losses in New York primaries

6 takeaways from the big progressive losses in New York primaries

Analyzing election outcomes, especially in primaries, comes with occupational risk. As a former chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), I’ve long seen pundits strain to extrapolate national trends from individual races, each of which carry their own unique local dynamics, personalities and events.

However, the resounding losses of progressives Rep. Jamaal Bowman to Westchester County Executive George Latimer in NY-16 and Nancy Goroff to journalist John Avlon in NY-1 do provide some insight to the broader national electorate.

Here are six takeaways from my beloved New York:

1. Pragmatism beat purity. In both races, moderate candidates opposed stalwarts of the left. As a county executive, Latimer was associated more with paving potholes than his position on the Highway Trust Fund. Avlon once wrote speeches for Rudy Giuliani and, as a CNN journalist, had established a reputation as a political independent.

By contrast, Bowman had long cut a fiery image as a member of the Squad, and Goroff sought to carve out a lane to the left of Avlon, frequently criticizing his Democratic bona fides. In the end, voters in both districts rejected partisan purity in favor of candidates perceived to be closer to the center. These were elections in favor of less polarization, not more.

2. Money matters. The Bowman-Latimer race was the most expensive House primary in history, with nearly $25 million spent (including more than $14 million from one outside group alone, the pro-Israel United Democracy Project). I know, because even though I live nearly 40 miles and several bridges away from NY-16, I couldn’t escape the pricey TV commercials blasting Bowman. Constantly. Relentlessly. Unmercifully. Bowman was inundated by a flood of campaign spending — and it proved insurmountable.

In NY-1, Avlon initially outpaced Goroff financially, raising more than $1 million in his first 40 days after joining the race, leading to a significant cash advantage. Goroff eventually caught up to Avlon — even surpassing his fundraising edge by giving her campaign a $1.2 million loan — but Avlon was able to maintain relative parity across the airwaves and power his campaign forward with a superior ground game.

While Avlon didn’t attain a comparable financial advantage to Latimer, both winning campaigns were powered by torrid fundraising operations that proved essential.

3. Context matters. Primaries are often sleepy affairs — unless a candidate finds themselves on the wrong side of the headlines. Bowman staked out an outspoken (some might say strident) position on Israel soon after Hamas’s brutal Oct. 7 massacre. One doesn’t have to be Jewish to have found his remarks insensitive at best and inflammatory at worst.

Bowman is entitled to his positions, but they ultimately proved incompatible with his district — especially when coupled with his often extreme rhetoric. Without the war in Gaza and Bowman’s self-defining pronouncements, this might not have been a race at all.

Also, note to candidates: Pulling the fire alarm on Capitol Hill during a vote (whether intentionally to disrupt proceedings or accidentally to get through a door) isn’t a great political strategy. Neither is dabbling in 9/11 conspiracy theories.

4. Candidates must fit their electorates. There’s a persistent, distracting argument among Democrats about whether the party should move left or right. The correct answer is that Democratic candidates should simply fit their electorates.

Westchester and Suffolk counties are quintessentially suburban. Most Democrats there lean left, but don’t overstretch their muscles. They don’t want their representative to make an ideological point — they want their representative to solve their problems. And they want a general election candidate who can build crossover coalitions that will blunt the MAGA movement on Capitol Hill.

In both of these races, Latimer and Avlon were focused on bread-and-butter issues, rather than hot-button progressive debates. They ran as moderate problem solvers — the kind of candidates the New York City suburbs usually elect. They won because they stayed true to the makeup of their districts.

5. For Biden, suburban battlegrounds matter … just not all of them. These New York primaries won’t affect the presidential election. It’s New York, where Trump would lose to just about anyone plucked off the street.

But the primaries do reflect the importance of the moderate, suburban voters in the seven presidential swing states — places like Bucks County in Pennsylvania and Eaton County in Michigan.

It’s a mistake to consider NY-16 and NY-1 as some perfect laboratory for Biden’s 2024 campaign — Long Island and Westchester have their own distinct political wrinkles. But it is true that many of the types of voters successfully won by Latimer and Avlon carry the same temperament as the voters Biden desperately needs in the swing states — pragmatic and not hyper-attuned to politics. These voters will decide the 2024 election, and we’ll spend the next five months trying to read their tea leaves.

6. Final word. Yes, the political world was gripped by these primaries. The cable shows were riveted (I was called into one on primary night). But for the majority of New Yorkers in Westchester, Yonkers and Long Island, there was a far more dramatic contest last night: The Mets beat the Yankees.

Steve Israel represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives over eight terms and was chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. Follow him @RepSteveIsrael

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