House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries has long been one of the most outspoken critics of the insurgent left inside of the Democratic Party. Since stepping into a leadership role in 2018, the New York congressman — who replaced his mentor Joe Crowley as chairman of the House Democratic Caucus after Crowley lost to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — has worked hard to protect moderate Democrats against challengers from their left in both the House and his own borough of Brooklyn, where he has a long-standing feud with the Democratic Socialists of America. 

After two powerful House Democrats lost their primaries to future “Squad” members Jamaal Bowman (New York) and Cori Bush (Missouri) in 2020, Jeffries teamed up with several colleagues, including conservative Democrat Rep. Josh Gottheimer on New Jersey, to form a fundraising PAC to defend moderate incumbents in safe districts. On its website, the Team Blue PAC, with funding almost exclusively from corporate PACs and lobbyists, vowed to support incumbents who were facing “strident electoral challenges, distortions of their record and ad hominem attacks,” while denouncing “extremists” and “outside forces” seeking to divide the Caucus. “The extreme left is obsessed with talking trash about mainstream Democrats on Twitter,” Jeffries complained in 2021.

The case of Rep. Jamaal Bowman made clear how little the minority leader’s endorsement is actually worth when a progressive’s political survival is at stake.

This contentious history made it newsworthy last year when Jeffries vowed to endorse all of his party’s incumbents in this year’s primaries, including those far to his left, after succeeding Rep. Nancy Pelosi as leader of the House Democrats in November 2022. It is starting to look, however, as if the Democratic leader’s outreach efforts were empty gestures. Though Jeffries ultimately kept his word on endorsements, the case of Bowman makes clear how little the minority leader’s endorsement is actually worth when a progressive’s political survival is at stake. 

Bowman was one of the few incumbents facing a serious threat in the primaries this year. This threat was largely a response to Bowman’s outspoken advocacy for Palestinians since the Israeli assault on Gaza began nine months ago. Bowman was one of the first in Congress to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and remains one of the very few people in Washington who has condemned Israel’s brutal campaign as a “genocide.” He has also been one of the most consistent voices on the left supporting key progressive legislation like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal.  This advocacy has cost Bowman politically, and when a well-funded opponent swept in from the right, Jeffries and the Democratic leadership did the bare minimum to help him fend off the threat. 

After endorsing his fellow New York congressman in March, Jeffries essentially disappeared from the primary scene. As a torrent of big donor cash from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) poured in against Bowman, Jeffries recorded a single robocall for his besieged colleague. Team Blue PAC, for their part, did not donate any money to Bowman, while Gottheimer endorsed Bowman’s challenger, Westchester County executive George Latimer, who also landed an endorsement from prominent Westchester County resident Hillary Clinton. 

Not surprisingly, Jeffries appeared to be none too upset when Bowman lost his reelection by a wide margin and became the first member of the informal bloc of young House progressives known as the “Squad” to be successfully primaried. “The results speak for themselves. The voters have spoken,” said Jeffries shortly after the vote. 

After the race, progressives criticized the minority leader for failing to offer genuine support to the battered incumbent. In a public letter to the top Democrat, 14 progressive and left-wing groups called on Jeffries to reject contributions from AIPAC and condemn the lobbying group’s unprecedented spending on the race. “Just three years ago, you yourself launched Team Blue, an effort to protect incumbent members from primary challenges. AIPAC’s destructive actions in your own backyard should be unacceptable,” the letter reads. 

After endorsing his fellow New York congressman in March, Jeffries essentially disappeared from the primary scene.

The office of Jeffries, who is one of the top recipients of AIPAC funds, responded with scorn, refusing to condemn the historic spending while singling out the progressive group Justice Democrats, who played a critical role in previous cycles helping elect progressives like AOC and Bowman. “The so-called Justice Democrats stated back in 2017 that their goal was to destroy the Democratic Party, and they laughably threatened to primary Hakeem Jeffries,” said Jeffries spokeswoman Christie Stephenson. “They have failed miserably in every way. Is anyone surprised?”

This sneering response displayed not only the contempt that Jeffries and his team continue to harbor toward the broader left, but also how much the Democratic establishment has regained confidence in itself after several difficult election cycles. Indeed, for some within Democratic circles, the defeat of Bowman was taken as proof that the left-wing insurgency that began with the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign — out of which groups like Justice Democrats sprung — has finally run its course and, in some cases, is now in full retreat. According to an analysis in the newspaper of record, Bowman’s loss to Latimer has driven home an “unmistakable reality” that the insurgent left’s candidates are “no longer gaining ground in major races, and in some cases they have started losing it.”

This is no doubt a comforting tale for establishment Democrats like Jeffries, who for years have had to contend with the possibility of becoming the next Crowley or Engel or Clay. But like most comforting tales, it is based as much on hope as it is on reality. 

Of course, Bowman’s loss to a candidate widely regarded as the establishment pick represented a crushing blow to the American left. But Bowman was a uniquely vulnerable candidate whose defeat hardly lends itself to simple conclusions. When the congressman won his seat in 2020, 41 percent of the district’s vote came from the (urban) Bronx and 59 percent from (suburban) Westchester. After post-census redistricting, the latter’s share increased to over 90 percent, which instantly transformed the district into a wealthier and whiter place, with its Black population shrinking from a third to just a fifth. It was always going to be difficult for a Black progressive fighting for poor and working-class families to win in a district that is primarily suburban and upper-middle class (compare this to AOC’s district, which has a median income about $30,000 less and a population that is half Hispanic). On top of this, Bowman faced about as strong an opponent as one could find. As a 30-year veteran of local Westchester politics, Latimer already had name recognition throughout the county and a well-established network of support that was ready to be activated on Day One of his candidacy. 

Then, of course, there was AIPAC. Of the $100 million that AIPAC and its affiliates pledged to spend in the 2024 elections, nearly a fifth of it went into the 16th congressional district’s Democratic primary, making it the single most expensive House primary in history. AIPAC’s super PAC, United Democracy Project (UDP), spent a staggering $14.5 million in the effort to unseat Bowman. Much of these funds came directly or indirectly from right-wing plutocrats and Republican megadonors like hedge fund manager Paul Singer and the billionaire co-founder of Home Depot, Bernie Marcus, who donated $7 million to Trump in 2016 and nearly $25 million to Republican candidates in 2020. Another AIPAC-affiliated group, Democratic Majority for Israel, pumped an additional $1 million into the race for Latimer (the county executive also benefited from $2 million spent by a pro-cryptocurrency super PAC). In the end, Bowman was outspent 7-to-1.

AIPAC’s super PAC, United Democracy Project, spent a staggering $14.5 million in the effort to unseat Bowman.

The historic spending campaign against Bowman shows that the billionaire-funded effort to slow and even reverse progressive gains, which began heating up in 2022, shows no signs of abating. Since AIPAC formed its super PAC two years ago, progressive groups have struggled to keep up with its record spending. In 2022, UDP spent nearly $30 million against progressive candidates in that year’s primaries, while a number of other big money operations aided these reactionary efforts, including crypto fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried’s super PAC  Protect Our Future and LinkedIn billionaire Reid Hoffman’s Mainstream Democrats PAC. The latter funneled millions into the primaries with the explicit goal of defending “mainstream Democrats” and defeating “extreme candidates whose stated goal is ‘to overthrow’ the Democratic Party.”

In 2022, this big money coalition unleashed millions against nine progressive candidates and defeated seven of them. In the process, it drained the resources of progressive groups that had provided critical support to progressive insurgents like Bowman and Bush in previous cycles. One sign of the organized left’s ongoing struggles in response to the billionaire-funded campaign against progressives can be seen at Justice Democrats, who were “massively outgunned” in 2022. In recent years, the organization has struggled with financial difficulties, undergoing two rounds of layoffs in 2023. These struggles have been compounded by the unprecedented spending against candidates like Bowman, which has forced progressive groups to put most of their resources into defending incumbents. In previous years, Justice Democrats consistently put forward a slate of candidates to challenge moderate incumbents, however this year, only a dozen incumbents are listed on the group’s website.

The next major battle for the left will come next month in St. Louis, where incumbent Bush is currently polling slightly behind her challenger, Wesley Bell, the prosecuting attorney for St. Louis County. UDP started buying ads for the Missouri race at the end of May, and the pro-Israel group has thus far booked about $2 million in ads for the race, accounting for 95 percent of primary spending so far. 

The same Democrats that do everything they can to stop progressive insurgents have spent the past year shielding Biden from all criticism.

Last Tuesday, one week after Bowman’s loss, Jeffries officially endorsed Bush in a joint statement with Minority Whip Rep. Katherine Clark (Mass.) and Caucus Chair Rep. Pete Aguilar (Calif.). If the Bowman race is any indication, one can expect little else from the Democratic leadership. In many ways, this race will be an even greater test for the left than Bowman’s. Bush is much better positioned to prevail over her AIPAC-backed opponent, yet her polling has dropped precipitously in recent months. If a second member of the “Squad” is ousted, expect more self-satisfied gloating from Democratic Party elites. 

None of this helps the Democrats’ prospects heading into an election with a presidential candidate who the majority of Americans believe is unfit for the job. Over the years, establishment Democrats have made their case against progressives and leftists by pointing to electability and the need to stop extreme “MAGA Republicans.” The irony of this was on full display two days after Bowman’s loss, when President Joe Biden delivered the worst debate performance in history, looking frail and frequently losing his train of thought. The same Democrats that do everything they can to stop progressive insurgents have spent the past year shielding Biden from all criticism and ensuring that he faced no serious challenger in the primary process, where such clear signs of decline would have been readily apparent. 

It is more important than ever to have independent progressives in Congress who are willing to stand up to the establishment and challenge party leaders like Jeffries, who would no doubt prefer good Democrats who are always ready to toe the party line. As the unfolding Biden crisis makes clear, the Democratic Party remains in desperate need of a reckoning.

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