(Bloomberg) -- One of the nastiest, most expensive political campaigns in the US isn’t a general election fight for the soul of the nation. 

It’s a mean-spirited, money-fueled Democratic primary in New York’s 16th congressional district, a tract spanning the Bronx’s poorest blocks to some of Westchester County’s richest suburbs.

The incumbent is Jamaal Bowman, a charismatic Black former middle school principal and a member of the “Squad,” an informal crew of mostly female, progressive and nonwhite congressional Democrats. He’s being challenged by George Latimer, a White, mild-mannered county executive who’s bolstered by a flood of money from pro-Israel interests and donors eager to unseat Bowman.

The June 25 election in one of the most heavily Jewish districts in the US is a microcosm of divisions roiling the country and the Democratic party over the Israel-Hamas conflict, but it’s also exposed broader rifts over race and the role of money and power in politics.

Democrats are hurling invective at each other, trading accusations of racism, bad-faith campaigning and downright moral turpitude, all while wringing their hands over whether the infighting will hurt Joe Biden and strengthen Donald Trump and other Republicans in the general election.

“We’re going to be the ones fighting to save democracy in November because Biden is going to need young people and people of color to come out,” Bowman said in a recent interview, as he stood in a picket line with striking Bronx housing court attorneys. “My opponent can’t bring them out. This is about the future of the party, the future of the country, the future of humanity.”

Bowman, 48, is one of four Squad members — Pennsylvania Representative Summer Lee, Missouri’s Cori Bush and Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar are the others — facing credible primary challengers this year. It’s the biggest threat to the group’s ascendancy since their respective elections to Congress. 

Bowman’s response to the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas and the ongoing conflict that followed is fueling critics already wary of his less-than-total support for Israel since his 2020 election. NY-16, which is half Black and Hispanic, is also home to about 60,000 Jewish residents, roughly 13% of its population.

The congressman is one of only a handful of US lawmakers — including fellow Squad members Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — who have called for a permanent ceasefire, which Israel strongly rejects. In recent weeks, many other Democrats, including Latimer, have called for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza, where the Hamas-run health ministry says more than 30,000 people, mostly civilians, have been killed. 

Bowman’s critics also point to his sometimes bizarre behavior. He pleaded guilty last year to a misdemeanor after pulling a false fire alarm in the US Capitol building as lawmakers were attempting a vote, and it was recently revealed that he authored blog posts that appeared to give credence to 9/11 conspiracy theories.

Lloyd Blankfein, the former chief executive officer of Goldman Sachs Group Inc., who donated $3,300 to Latimer’s campaign, said he sees the race as an opportunity to root out a far-left element in the Democratic party.

“I don’t have such a concrete view of George Latimer, but I have a pretty clear sense of Jamaal Bowman,” said Blankfein, a Bronx native. “I’m happy to do my small part in moving the Democratic party away from such extremists.”

But it is some Jewish voters’ snowballing anger over Bowman’s foreign policy views that is arguably the biggest catalyst for Latimer’s candidacy. 

Since entering the race in December, he has received roughly $1.3 million in donations from the campaign arm of the powerful American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and has been endorsed by Democratic Majority for Israel, which supports centrist pro-Israel Democrats.

“There are people who hold views that there should be a ceasefire,” Latimer said. “Now, I think that’s a minority of the district. But that doesn’t mean I don’t see the tragedy of Gaza. This is terrible that people are dying this way.”

Latimer, who is Catholic, said he received a letter of support from 26 rabbis asking him to run because Bowman “has not shown the sensitivity to our issues.”

AIPAC is concentrating its Democratic primary spending on ousting two Squad members it sees as the most vulnerable, Bowman and Bush, who is facing challenger Wesley Bell in a district that includes St. Louis. AIPAC has already spent $230,000 on anti-Bowman attack ads, and $40,000 supporting Bell, who is Black. 

The group has vowed to spend as much as $100 million on pro-Israel candidates, about double the $50 million it spent in 2021-2022, the first election cycle in which AIPAC had ever spent money in individual races. 

In January, the liberal pro-Israel lobbying organization J Street took the unusual step of withdrawing its endorsement of Bowman, after he referred to Israel’s actions in Gaza as “genocide.” The same month, a group called “Westchester Unites” launched a campaign to persuade Jewish voters to register as Democrats so they could vote in the primary. More than 2,300 people responded.

Even so, Bowman still enjoys support from a vocal group of progressive Jewish voters who call themselves “Jews for Jamaal.”

Israel Stance

Israel wasn’t the main campaign issue in June 2020 when Bowman shocked the Democratic establishment by unseating 13-term incumbent and pro-Israel stalwart Eliot Engel. He won support from majorities of both Westchester and Bronx voters eager for change after the national racial reckoning sparked by George Floyd’s murder. 

Since then Bowman has taken pro-Israel stances that have occasionally put him at odds with the Democratic party’s far left. He supports a two-state solution in the region, opposes the “Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions” movement, and let his membership in the Democratic Socialists of America lapse in 2022 after the group considered expelling him for voting to fund Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system. 

But at the same time, he’s been “vituperative and hostile” in describing the Jewish state, said Democratic Majority for Israel head Mark Mellman, who called Bowman’s record on Israel “one of the worst” in Congress. 

Among Bowman’s offenses, according to Mellman: skipping vigils in his district for the Oct. 7 victims; co-authoring a resolution referring to Israel’s founding in 1948 as the Nakba, — Arabic for the catastrophe — and voting against a resolution supporting Israel’s right to self-defense and condemning Hamas, which the US and European Union designate as a terrorist group.

Mellman said his group had hoped to “bring him around” after he won in 2020. “That proved impossible,” he said.

Bowman remains undaunted. He’s campaigning hard, especially in Bronx neighborhoods where he’s beloved by many constituents, and he insists he isn’t vulnerable. A recent DMFI poll, however, suggested he’s losing to Latimer by 17 points. 

Other critics say it’s not just Bowman’s stances on Israel that have attracted donors trying to defeat him.

Latimer “has to be one of the best positioned House challengers in the country,” said Evan Stavisky, a New York Democratic political consultant. The fire alarm incident, which led to Bowman’s censure in the House, and the blog posts on 9/11 left even his supporters scratching their heads. Bowman said he pulled the alarm by mistake.

“We also don’t want to vote for someone who pulls the fire alarm and then lies about it,” said Latimer supporter Amy Paulin, a Democratic Assembly member whose district includes Scarsdale. “He looks like a fool.” 

Read more: US House Censures Democrat Bowman for Pulling Fire Alarm

Bowman said his constituents don’t care about either incident.  

“That shit don’t work on Black people,” he said. “Black people see that a mile away. ‘Oh, you can’t really get him on anything substantive, so you’re going to try to tell me about a fire alarm accident as some big scandal?’”

Wealthy Donors

For George Latimer, 70, the primary is the highest-profile contest of his life. He entered politics after decades as a salesman, winning elections for a string of local and state offices before running and winning the race for Westchester County executive. He has a record of supporting progressive legislation and peppers his speech and social media with mid-20th century pop music references. (He burst into a rendition of “On the Street Where You Live” from the musical My Fair Lady, during a recent interview).

And for the first time in his political career, Latimer’s campaign is flush with cash. He’s raised $3.67 million to date, compared with Bowman’s roughly $2 million. 

Bowman is hammering Latimer over those donations, noting a recent Latimer fundraiser hosted by Awbury Group CEO Alex Dubitsky, who has given to Trump and other Republicans. Bowman has repeatedly criticized Latimer’s AIPAC support because of the organization’s frequent donations to Republicans.

Latimer countered that AIPAC also donates to many Democrats, including New York House members Hakeem Jeffries, Grace Meng and Gregory Meeks. 

In addition to Blankfein, Latimer’s campaign has attracted money from well-known, wealthy individuals, including: Boaz Weinstein, Lisa Blau, Blair Effron, David Einhorn, Bennett Goodman, Dan Loeb and Dan Och. Some live outside the district.

“It is unacceptable to have an October 7 denier as my representative in Congress,” said Einhorn, who lives in the district.

Latimer’s main criticism of Bowman is that he prioritizes “style over substance” and practices a radical and unproductive form of politics that eschews coalition building in favor of virtue signaling to far-left supporters. Bowman was one of six Democrats who voted against Biden’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package in 2021. 

Bowman called comments on his style “the kind of language that is used by racists.” Latimer’s critique, he said, is nothing more than a dog whistle — an attempt to “diminish the way in which I engage our communities that have been the most marginalized.”  

Both men seemed deeply wounded by the nasty tenor of the campaign. Bowman’s allies have called his opponent “Genocide George,” while Latimer has reportedly accused the incumbent of taking money from Hamas.

“The people in the district who support him have been disgusting towards me,” Bowman said. “The vitriol and the tone? It didn’t come from us. It’s come from him, his own mouth and his supporters.”

A.J. Woodson, a Bowman supporter who knows both men, said Latimer is personally hurt by the charge of racism coming from Bowman’s campaign.

Latimer “has never faced this kind of pushback, especially from the Black community,” said Woodson, the publisher of a local newsmagazine called Black Westchester.

Latimer said he’s trying to avoid personally attacking Bowman but can take only so much. 

“If he keeps it up,” he said, “I’ll take the gloves off.”

--With assistance from Zach Williams and Amanda Gordon.

(Updates with comment from donor in sixth paragraph under Wealthy Donors subhed)

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