Over three weeks after the primary election was held, Jamaal Bowman was officially declared the winner of the democratic nomination for U.S. Representative of NY-16. Bowman defeated 16-term incumbent Rep. Eliot Engel with 56% of the vote, making Engel the 5th House incumbent to lose a nomination this year. As a political newcomer directly challenging the democratic establishment, Bowman’s campaign faced many obstacles – especially considering the first confirmed case of COVID-19 on the east coast was within the NY-16 district. With the backing of Justice Democrats, endorsements from big names on the left, and an experienced campaign team on his side, Bowman succeeded in making the case that he will be a more present and future-minded candidate working for the people.
AAPC recently spoke to one of those experienced campaign professionals who served on Bowman’s team, Rebecca Kirszner Katz, to find out first hand what strategies the campaign utilized to achieve this win. Katz served as the Senior Advisor for Communications on Bowman’s team, and is the founder of New Deal Strategies, a progressive political consulting firm for candidates and causes.
New York City was significantly impacted by COVID-19. How did that impact affect your campaign? How did you overcome those challenges?
Our candidate, Jamaal Bowman, announced his candidacy in June of 2019. So, we had a lot of time before COVID-19, and heavily focused on field operations. Once COVID hit, we had to do a lot of things differently. Jamaal’s background is as an educator, so we focused our messaging on helping parents transition to homeschooling their kids, often while working, in an effort to help make life easier for parents with kids at home.
Jamaal’s district was hit first and hardest. The first outbreak on the East Coast was in his district, so we were very focused on helping the community get educated on the virus and necessary safety precautions. But, we also talked about this race and what was at stake. Our opponent was nowhere to be seen, so that became a more pronounced campaign message as time went on.
The results of the election were delayed by a few weeks due to the unusually high number of absentee ballots that needed to be counted. What strategies did the campaign utilize to encourage absentee voting?
We wanted to make sure people were safe. Not only was there absentee voting, but also early voting, which you could do on your own schedule and might be less crowded than in-person voting on election day. It was about getting the word out about early voting and absentee and making sure people were safe. This was the first year New York was doing it, so we were focused heavily on educating the public on their options of how to vote – not only on our race. We did so by utilizing many mailers and lots of phone calls to educate our voters.
Did outside groups become involved in the campaign, and if so, what was their impact?
Jamaal was nominated as the Justice Democrats candidate – they were with us from day one. In the early days of the campaign infrastructure, they helped get our communications set up, and really in every way possible. There are a lot of groups that endorse candidates, but Justice Democrats is the type of organization that gets in and does the work too.
What impact did the endorsements of high profile Democrats like Sen. Bernie Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have on the campaign?
Those endorsements really helped us down the home stretch. They brought in much needed money, helping us have six-figure days, which was huge for our momentum. The day that Hillary Clinton endorsed our opponent was actually one of our biggest fundraising days. I think a lot of people were angry that she got involved and endorsed an incumbent who was absent and out of touch, when a young, engaged, and progressive candidate could become our future.
What is the significance of Bowman’s defeat against his opponent, a 16-term incumbent?
This was a huge upset with national implications. Engle was the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee – so there were millions of dollars spent on smearing Jamaal – but their messaging didn’t work. People really want change. They don’t just want a representative who votes the right way, but they want a representative who will fight for them, and in times like this they especially want a fighter.
Based on your take-aways from this effort, do you have any advice for other Democratic campaigns this November?
Don’t take anything for granted. Jamaal Bowman fought for every single vote. In order to upset a 30-year incumbent, everything had to go just the right way. Jamaal worked day and night to make sure that happened. Finally, you have to give people something to believe in.