War Stories

Obtuse Engel

The veteran New York Democrat’s likely defeat is a cautionary tale for Washington power brokers who lose touch with their voters back home.

Eliot Engel posing in his office, surrounded by baseball memorabilia.
Eliot Engel poses for a portrait in his office on Capitol Hill on Nov. 15, 2018. Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images

Rep. Eliot Engel, the 73-year-old chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, appears to have lost his seat to Jamaal Bowman, a former middle school principal and first-time candidate. (Mail-in ballots have yet to be counted, but the in-person tally suggests a rout, with Bowman winning 62 percent of the vote.)

The race was portrayed as a contest between the traditional and progressive wings of the Democratic Party. Engel won endorsements from Hillary Clinton, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff. Bowman was backed by Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who has backed several previous campaigns to displace moderate Democrats with leftists.

But while the schism played a part in Bowman’s upset victory (progressive groups targeted the election as a gateway to their larger ambitions), his campaign’s biggest ally was Engel, who did almost everything an incumbent can do to lose his overly comfortable seat.

Engel’s biggest sin: He almost never went home. Even during the COVID-19 crisis, when his district in the Bronx and Westchester County, New York, was hardest hit, Engel stayed locked down in his home in suburban Maryland. The final straw may have come earlier this month, when he showed up at a news conference about police brutality and was heard, on a hot mic, asking the MC, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz, if he could speak. When Diaz told him there was a long list of speakers, Engel said, “If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care.”

The fact that Engel had to beg for a speaking slot revealed how little his 31 years as the district’s congressman had earned him the respect of his constituents. His reason for wanting to speak revealed that Engel reciprocated their indifference.

Part of his detachment may lie in the fact that, for many of those years, Engel held the post of top Democrat—and, since 2018, chairman—of the committee dealing with foreign policy. Of the four committee chairmen defeated in a primary in modern times, three were chairs of such committees. (The other two were Republican Richard Lugar and Democrat J. William Fulbright, chairmen of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.*)

Charles Stevenson, a former Senate staffer who is professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, said of those who hold these chairs in an email: “The temptation is great to stay in town for the embassy dinners. And the job requirement is to travel abroad during congressional recesses.”

Leadership positions in general can make an incumbent complacent. AOC won her primary in 2018, partly because the incumbent, Joseph Crowley, who was chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, rarely went home and, as a result, missed his district’s demographic shifts, which tilted toward Ocasio-Cortez’s favor. Rep. Eric Cantor, the Republican House Majority Leader, was thrown for a similar loop when he lost the 2014 primary to an unknown Tea Party member.

Engel’s district has also gone through demographic changes in recent years, but, as Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute said in an email, those changes are “not like the ones that favored AOC.”

About one-third of Engel’s constituents are Black and one-quarter Latino, but that’s long been the case. Ornstein said the new tilt came from “simply a lot of people with no ties to Engel,” especially in “a lot of new affluent areas more progressive than in the past.”

Harry Enten, a pollster at CNN, noted in an email that this election year is also seeing a “movement towards Black candidates more widely,” boosted by the growth in support for Black Lives Matter amid recent protests. Enten added that Democratic voters “want straight anti-Trump,” whereas “Engel was not always party line, and this was used against him.” Engel opposed President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal and he has also been a staunch supporter of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Though Enten doubts this had much effect on the vote, Bowman in his campaign did draw comparisons between police oppression of Black Americans and Israel’s oppression of Palestinians.

It is not yet clear whether Engel’s defeat will have much impact on the Democratic Party’s view of foreign policy. The House Foreign Affairs Committee hasn’t been an influential panel since the 1990s, when Rep. Lee Hamilton was chair. Since then, it has been a very distant cousin, at best, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. The Senate committee at least confirms State Department officials and ratifies treaties; the House panel does neither. Neither of them has any power over the State Department’s budget or organization.

Even in this limited framework, Engel was viewed as a weak chairman. I asked several congressional observers to name an issue where Engel has played an important role. None of them could think of any.

California Rep. Brad Sherman, age 65, is the second-ranking Democrat on the committee, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he will succeed Engel—and some Congress watchers doubt that he will.* Pelosi and her party caucus will select the new chairman in January 2021, assuming the Democrats retain control of the House, and one possible choice is Rep. Joaquin Castro, who, though fairly low down the roster in terms of seniority, is the committee’s vice chairman. It’s a designation that doesn’t mean much substantively, but it could serve as the rationale for the leaders to advance a young, progressive, Latino congressman.

Correction, June 24, 2020: This piece misstated Rep. Brad Sherman’s age. It also misidentified J. William Fulbright as J. William Proxmire.