adamkaz/Getty Images

(NEW YORK) — A historically expensive and fiercely contentious Democratic primary in New York’s 16th District has incumbent Rep. Jamaal Bowman fighting for his political future and has garnered national attention as a bellwether for the schism fissuring the Democratic Party over the Israel-Hamas war.

Bowman, a staunch progressive with ties to the Democratic Socialists of America, is being challenged by a local official who is seen, by some, as more moderate: Westchester County Executive George Latimer. Latimer has represented parts of Westchester County in some form since 2005.

High-profile Democrats have flooded the zone with endorsements, with former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton endorsing Latimer on X two weeks before polls close. Meanwhile, progressives such as Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., are circling their wagons around Bowman, hosting rallies and spearheading get-out-the-vote efforts on his behalf.

Bowman’s progressive politics have been a frequent basis of attack for Latimer, whose core argument is that Bowman is “putting his extreme ideology ahead of progress.” Latimer has also criticized Bowman for voting against President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

Bowman has reciprocated these attacks, tying Latimer to Republicans and stressing his support from donors to former President Donald Trump, such as Alex Dubitsky, despite Latimer identifying as a progressive.

But it is the candidates’ stances on the Israel-Hamas war and their relationships with local groups that raise this race’s national profile.

Bowman has been one of Congress’ most ardent critics of Israel, referring to the Israel Defense Forces’ incursions in Gaza as a “genocide” and frequently calling for a cease-fire.

Resultingly, Latimer, a pro-Israel candidate, was recruited to run by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), according to The New York Times. Since reportedly encouraging Latimer to run, AIPAC has been his most powerful supporter — the organization’s United Democracy Project PAC alone makes up for 60% of ad spending in the race, according to AdImpact — which, as of Monday, clocks in at an eye-popping $23 million total, according to filings compiled by OpenSecrets.

AdImpact tracks that the race for N.Y.-16 is the most expensive House primary to date. Even still, whoever wins this primary is likely to win in the general election — a Republican hasn’t been elected in the district since 1949.

In an interview with ABC News, Sanders called the primary “one of the most important elections in the modern history of this country” and hoped that the influx of opposition advertising would not deter true progressives.

“What I would say to the people of the district, even if you disagree with Bowman on this or that issue, stand up to the billionaire class and tell them they cannot buy this election and buy the United States government,” Sanders said.

Bowman railed against AIPAC’s funding during a rally on Saturday in the Bronx flanked by progressives Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders.

“AIPAC is scared to death,” Bowman said. “That is why they are spending record amounts of money in this race because they are afraid they have already lost because the district, the American people, and the world are with us.”

“But they are the money — we are the mighty, they are the money, we are the many,” Bowman said.

Amanda Berman, founder of the progressive, pro-Israel group Zioness, told ABC News that Bowman’s “many versus money” framing encourages gross stereotypes about the Jewish community.

“That comment makes Jews’ skin crawl, that is petrifying that we are being called ‘the money’ in the way that singles us out as not part of ‘the many,’ and it activates a dangerous and age-old antisemitic stereotype about Jews and money. It suggests that there is something nefarious about wanting people who represent us in Washington to care about protecting our safety, especially at a moment of such exploding antisemitism,” Berman said.

Berman said she sees the influx of support around an alternative candidate as indicative that “progressive Jews and real progressives across the country who are seeing a perversion of progressive values want to reclaim what it means to be a progressive.”

Former Rep. Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y., who broke ranks from other congressional progressives by endorsing Latimer, attributed his decision to Bowman’s positions following Hamas’ attack on Israel and the effect it has had on the lower Hudson Valley Jewish community. Jones referenced Bowman’s denial that Hamas committed sexual violence on Oct. 7, which he has since apologized for, and Bowman’s support of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Speaking to ABC News, Jones said he has “long disagreed with Mr. Bowman’s views and positions on Israel.”

“But since Oct. 7, they have taken on a different character, even for him. It has had dramatic effects on my Jewish neighbors in the Hudson Valley, and I will always stand up for my Jewish neighbors, especially when they are pointing to the words and actions of a former colleague which have directly contributed to anxiety, anger and fear that they experience,” he said.

Usamah Andrabi, the spokesperson for Justice Democrats, told ABC News that the United Democracy Project is “a Republican-funded super PAC that disproportionately targets progressive Democrats of color with Republican billionaire funding and endorsed alongside the same Republicans — hundreds of Republicans — who have voted to overturn President Biden’s election and support banning abortion.”

When reached for comment, AIPAC told ABC News in a statement: “It is a scurrilous lie to suggest that we target progressive Democrats of color — the truth is that we support many pro-Israel candidates of color. Our only criterion for supporting or opposing candidates is their position on the U.S.-Israel relationship. In fact, we support nearly half of the Congressional Black Caucus, Hispanic Caucus and Progressive Caucus.”

The way both men have responded to the conflict has led to a feeling of desertion by some members of the Jewish and Muslim communities within the district.

Rabbi Evan Hoffman, who leads the Orthodox congregation Anshe Sholom in New Rochelle and has known Latimer for years, told ABC News that he called the representative to request a statement condemning violence against Jews in advance of a feared “Day of Rage” shortly after the attacks in Israel on Oct. 7. 

“And his reaction was to say, ‘That’s interesting,’ and then he hung up,” said Hoffman, who was then chair of the Westchester Board of Rabbis.

ABC News has reached out to Bowman’s campaign for a response.

Hoffman also noted that prior board members had tried to make inroads with Bowman in 2020 and 2021, but “felt that he was snubbing them, and it was impossible to develop positive relations.”

Another Westchester rabbi, who was granted anonymity to speak freely, told ABC News that Bowman had reached out to a number of rabbis around Hanukkah, but “none of the rabbis on the Westchester Board of Rabbis wanted to attend.”

Hoffman said he believes that the negative feelings toward Bowman extend to the larger Jewish community, arguing that “the average Jew on the street in Westchester has a very thin view of Jamaal Bowman and would express it even more heartily than I would.”

Both rabbis told ABC News that a supermajority of their congregation preferred Latimer over Bowman.

JVP Action — the political wing of Jewish Voice for Peace, which describes itself as a “progressive Jewish anti-Zionist organization” — said it disagrees with that characterization. 

“The Jewish community is not a monolith. And that’s true nationally, and it’s true in the district, as well,” the organization’s spokeswoman, Beth Miller, told ABC News, “and no one can really claim to speak for the entire Jewish community.”

Prominent members of Westchester’s Muslim community have expressed a similar frustration with Latimer.

Donny Khan, a leader of Westchester Progressives — an organization that actively helped elect Latimer to county executive but now strongly supports Bowman — said that Latimer’s responsiveness to affluent, predominantly white communities has come at the expense of other constituents.

“When he needed our votes, he was here. He came to the community center and took pictures with women in hijabs, and with me and everything,” he said. “But then ever since he was recruited to run against Jamaal Bowman, he has cut all contact.”

Supporters of Bowman argue that part of their fear that Latimer will not be reliable comes from a history of the latter not holding firm positions while serving Westchester.

“George Latimer is willing to be anything for anyone,” said Andrabi, Justice Democrats spokesperson.

Khan offered a similar sentiment, saying, “I think his whole reputation — the way he survived 35 years in Westchester politics — is basically never taking a hard stance on anything.”

Copyright © 2024, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.