“Insurgent” Progressives Do It Again

AOC opened the door in 2018. And in 2020, Jamaal Bowman charged right through it.

Bowman pulled off the upset of 30-year incumbent Elliot Engel in New York’s 16th district. The final results won’t be official for days, but Bowman’s campaign proved as fruitful as AOC’s in 2018—and the similarities between the two are impossible to ignore. Both ran as progressives against white establishment incumbents in minority-majority districts who weren’t used to being challenged. Both portrayed their opponents as old and out of touch with their constituents. And both were portrayed as “insurgent” progressives bucking trends and signaling a sea change in capital-D Democratic politics. It’s no exaggeration to say Bowman was running against the Democratic establishment. Engel had all the requisite old school power brokers on his side, from Nancy Pelosi to Chuck Schumer to Hillary Clinton, while Bowman leaned on progressives like AOC, Bernie Sanders, and Justice Democrats to hammer his messaging home.

Bowman’s seeming victory validates progressive viability in congressional races, as does Charles Booker’s campaign in Kentucky. A fellow insurgent progressive, Booker used grassroots fundraising and support to close the gap between himself and moderate Amy McGrath, the Democratic establishment’s handpicked candidate.

Final results won’t be known for several days there, either, but Booker’s in a decent position to win even after McGrath had a six month head start and raised tens of millions of dollars before he had even entered the race. Booker spent yesterday offering voters Lyft rides to polling stations and filing injunctions to keep polls open until their allotted times. He hardly needed any more buzz after his last several months of campaigning, but his actions more than proved his commitment to voting rights and progressive ideals.

There are unique circumstances that helped make both Bowman and Booker viable. But both proved that not only is there room to the left of establishment figures, but also that people will buy into imaginative and actionable progressive messaging. It’ll likely take bigger victories for the Democratic establishment to start really listening, but Bowman and Booker have gotten their attention in the best way possible.