High-Profile Clashes at Pivotal Democratic Primaries

Who Prevails Will Send a Powerful Signal About the Party’s Future Trajectory

Amid ongoing urban unrest and the fallout from COVID-19, two states are hosting primary elections to determine key Democratic party nominees for the 2020 election. While Coronavirus-induced delays will likely delay release of the results for several days, these races are notable for featuring two high-profile clashes between the Democratic establishment and more left-wing insurgent candidates. Who prevails will send a powerful signal about the Democratic party’s future trajectory, with implications for American governance and foreign policy. 


The first race being closely watched by political observers is the Democratic primary for the Senate seat currently held by Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader of the Senate and one of the GOP’s most formidable legislators. This week’s contest centers on Amy McGrath, a former Marine who gained national attention for a near-victory in her 2018 bid for Kentucky’s sixth congressional district. As 2020 opened, she was well positioned to win the Democratic nomination, aided by the national following she won in 2018 and raising nearly $41.1 million, even more than McConnell.

However, in recent weeks this race has grown increasingly competitive. Charles Booker, a progressive candidate running well to McGrath’s Left, has garnered increasing attention. Booker, who, if nominated and elected, would be Kentucky’s first African-American senator, is running on a progressive platform that includes universal health care, a “green new deal” to tackle climate change, and a universal basic income. Booker has gained special attention for drawing attention to racial inequality, a salient issue in the wake of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, an African-American woman killed by local police at her home in Louisville, Kentucky in March.  

Booker has garnered the late-race endorsement of the state’s two largest newspapers — the Courier Journal and Lexington Herald Leader —  as well as the progressive Left’s most imposing names on a national level: Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Senator Elizabeth Warren. 


Perhaps the most direct clash between the Democratic party’s progressive insurgents and more moderate establishment figures lies in the 16th District.cVeteran Congressman and Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot Engel, who has long played an influential role in shaping both foreign and domestic policy, is being challenged by former middle school principal Jamaal Bowman, who has positioned himself to Engel’s left on a host of issues. 

Although Engel has easily fended off challenges in recent years, his competition in this cycle has benefited from uniquely favorable circumstances. The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic forced Engel to remain in Washington, D.C. to shape relief legislation, even as his Congressional district — centered in the Bronx and Westchester County — developed into a coronavirus hotspot. Likewise, the surge in importance of racial issues and police brutality have redounded to the benefit of Engel’s challenger, who is both African-American and situated to Engel’s left on issues of law enforcement. 

Although Engel is widely viewed as a pillar of the party’s moderate establishment, his voting record is substantially more liberal than many other Democrats now facing progressive primary challenges. According to one outside estimate, Engel is more liberal than 64 percent of the current House Democratic Caucus.  Engel’s position is further bolstered by the vocal support of establishment figures such as former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo, all of whom have recently endorsed him. 


If today’s primaries witness breakout performances from progressive candidates, that would mark a substantial break from recent precedent. According to Waleed Shahid, the communications director for Justice Democrats, a progressive advocacy group, "It's extremely rare for an incumbent Democrat in Congress to be unseated by a more progressive candidate,” adding that, “for all the coverage the Tea Party received, and their influence in the Republican party, they were only able to unseat three House Republicans, maximum, in any given cycle."