Democrats' divisions on Israel highlighted in House primary in New York

The polls are open Tuesday in New York’s 16th Congressional District, where Democratic Rep. Jamaal Bowman is fighting to save his seat against Westchester County Executive George Latimer in a race that has become focused on Israel and has become the most expensive House primary in history. 

“We’re going to win the race on Tuesday,” Bowman told CBS News. “That’s the bottom line. My opponent is unfit for this office.” 

Hustling in between campaign stops with an influx of fellow “Squad” members, the progressive lawmaker is seeking to ward off the challenge from Latimer in New York’s 16th Congressional District, which spans parts of the Bronx to White Plains.

“I’ve been in some tough races before and I’ve never really tried to project how I think I’m going to do,” Latimer said in an interview with CBS News. “The way I view it is right now I’m working hard.” 

Latimer entered the race in December 2023 but this month an Emerson College poll showed he had pulled significantly ahead of Bowman 48%-31%, with 21% of voters undecided. 

(L)  Rep. Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., is at a campaign stop in White Plains, New York, on June 11, 2024. (R) Westchester County Executive George Latimer campaigns at a train station in White Plains, New York, on Thursday, June 13, 2024.

(L) AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey, File (R) AP Photo/Ted Shaffrey

“The polling data is very good, the most recent poll that we saw but, you know, the polling data isn’t the final word,” Latimer said. 

The closely watched contest has been contentious from the start as intra-party divisions over the Israel-Hamas war have erupted as a key issue. Latimer has expressed broad support for Israel and visited the country shortly after the Oct. 7 terror attacks and before launching his campaign. Bowman, a vocal critic of Israel’s handling of the war, has opposed U.S. military assistance and called for a permanent ceasefire. 

“The reason it has gotten so much attention is because for so many years, you know, if you don’t take the quote, unquote, ‘pro-Israel’ side, then you know, people treat you as something is wrong with you,” Bowman said. “And so we have to have honest conversations. Yes, we have to condemn Oct. 7, as we have done, but we also have to condemn the collective punishment that’s happening to the Palestinians right now.”  

“Israel is a country that has a right to exist,” Latimer explained. “Ultimately if there’s going to be peace in the region, there has to be a two-state solution, which involves, you know, an Arab state alongside of it. But there has to be a willingness for the players to commit to peace on both sides and, you know, frankly, Jamaal had a different attitude about that.”

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, and its affiliated group, the United Democracy Project, have spent more than $14.8 million on ads in support of Latimer and critical of Bowman’s record, according to Ad Impact. Overall, more than $24.8 million has been spent by various groups, making it the most expensive House primary in history. 

“George Latimer is not a critical thinking person and much of what he espouses comes directly from AIPAC, who is funding his entire campaign,” alleged Bowman who claims his opponent is backed by “MAGA Republicans.” 

“To tie AIPAC as a MAGA-Republican situation is not to be honest about the truth,” Latimer responded. “They are an organization that supports individuals who support Israel and so those other individuals who get support from AIPAC are really no closer to Donald Trump and MAGA than I am. It is an effort to try to create some guilt by association donation.”

The fierce divide has also split Democratic leaders. House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, Whip Katherine Clark and caucus chair Pete Aguilar have endorsed Bowman along with fellow progressives Sen. Bernie Sanders and the left-leaning “Squad” including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez who rallied with Bowman in sweltering heat over the weekend.

“It’s not just a race between two candidates with very different points of view,” Sanders told reporters. “The real race is whether or not America retains its democratic tradition. Will we allow big money and super PACs to buy elections. It should be of concern to every American no matter what your political point of view is that you have organizations spending $15 million into one congressional race. So the issue that we have there is, does this become the future of American politics?”

Latimer is endorsed by former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who lives in Westchester county. He’s also backed by Mondaire Jones, a Bowman ally and former congressman who is running again in a nearby district. On Monday, Rep. Josh Gottheimer of New Jersey became the first sitting Democratic member of Congress to throw his support behind the 70-year-old local politician.

“We need more commonsense leaders and problem solvers in Congress,” Gottheimer posted on social media. “I know George will fight hate in all forms and stand up for the values we all believe in.” 

Bowman, 48, who pleaded guilty to falsely pulling a fire alarm in a Capitol office building last year, is considered one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents up for reelection and could be the first Squad member to lose his seat, if defeated. 

“People know me,” said Latimer, who spent more than a decade in the New York state legislature. “I am what I am politically based on what I’ve done. And what I’ve done is progressive.”

“I have served this community for over a decade, first as a middle school principal, now as a member of Congress, centered in equity, and justice and humanity fighting to bring resources back,” Bowman said.  “I am going to win this race. That’s the number one focus right now.”

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