The New York Primary That’s Turned Into a ‘Horror Show’

·9 min read
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

It took an off-the-cuff tweet from a California congressman to encapsulate how ugly New York City’s most contested Democratic primary has become.

Last week, Daniel Goldman, a leading contender to win Tuesday’s primary in New York’s 10th Congressional District, tweeted out an ad touting his top qualification for office: his experience as House Democrats’ lead counsel during the 2019 impeachment of Donald Trump.

In response, Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA)—a key participant in the impeachment investigation and a friend of Goldman’s—tweeted, “looks great. Bullshit desperate ad from Mondaire.”

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The Mondaire in question was Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY), also a competitor in this primary. He had just released his own bristling ad attacking Goldman as a “conservative”—on the basis that he appeared to endorse abortion restrictions in an interview—and hit him for being wealthy and having had investments in Fox News.

Goldman and his backers, quite clearly, believe those attacks to be baseless. And Swalwell later deleted the tweet. But the distaste among New York progressives remained—particularly among Jones’ camp.

“If Eric Swalwell had any impact in New York City at all, it’d look the same as his impact in the 2020 presidential primary,” said Bill Neidhardt, a consultant working for Jones’ campaign, taking a dig at Swalwell’s short-lived bid for the White House in 2020.

But the Twitter dust-up was just one of a mounting number of reasons that this 12-candidate race to fill an open U.S House seat in a super-liberal district has become, in the words of one New York-based Democratic operative, a “horror show.”

The conditions for that horror show were created as soon as a Republican judge ordered a last-minute redo of the state’s new congressional lines in June. The process resulted in a new 10th District, in Manhattan and Brooklyn, that was drawn without an incumbent but included several key constituencies in the city’s politics—chiefly Asian-American, Hispanic, and Jewish voters.

But perhaps the biggest reason why this race is getting so bitter is because it has become yet another referendum on whether it is the progressive left or the center left that truly captures the Democratic Party.

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The race makes for an unusual referendum, because there are not many deep, substantive differences between the policies pushed by the four front-running candidates. “They’ll all vote the same on 99 percent of the House bills,” the New York operative said, observing that it was somewhat rich to see Democrats try to turn Goldman into “Joe Manchin.”

But more visible differences in personal background, political alliances, and overall vibes—i.e, how they talk and what issues they choose to focus on—have sorted the candidates into camps in the eyes of Democratic politicos.

Many progressives in New York and beyond have grown convinced that electing Goldman would represent a “missed opportunity,” in the eyes of one source, to harness the energy of a highly diverse, deep blue district to amplify the party’s left flank and broaden representation in Congress.

A former prosecutor and an immensely wealthy heir to the Levi Strauss fortune—who has tapped into his own wealth to fund his campaign—Goldman doesn’t quite fit that bill. In fact, his opponents have highlighted his elite status as disqualifying.

The problem for progressives is not that they lack a credible, strong candidate of their own. The problem is that they have too many.

Three candidates—Jones, state lawmaker Yuh-Line Niou, and city council member Carlina Rivera—have all previously run on the line of the Working Families Party for their current offices, which is tantamount to a seal of approval from the state’s left wing. (Niou has the WFP endorsement in this race.)

At this point, progressives know they should coalesce around one candidate, but no one wants to lean too hard on any one candidate—each of whom represents key political constituencies and has powerful backers—to drop out.

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With the top contenders all convinced they have a path to victory, the fear among some is that they will split the vote and give Goldman a small, but decisive, plurality when the votes are counted on Tuesday.

“From a progressive perspective, there’s a sense it’s a slow moving car crash, and we know where it’s going to end up,” said a senior House aide.

If Goldman is elected, the aide said, “there are going to be some recriminations” within the progressive movement.

With the primary days away, the three most left-aligned candidates are all arguing that they’re the most viable.

In contrast to Goldman’s Resistance-flavored campaign, Rivera has leaned into a key issue animating the party base right now: abortion.

“Progressive New Yorkers and voters in NY-10 recognize that she is the best choice for a committed liberal and genuine progressive to represent us in Congress, especially on reproductive rights and abortion access,” said Sara Rodriguez, spokesperson for the Rivera campaign. To amplify that message, Rivera is getting last-minute backup from a PAC that supports Latino candidates, which is dropping $500,000 on TV ads.

Jones had already been up on the airwaves. “Dan Goldman has plowed $4 million into this race, so the question is which progressive has the resources to strike back, and the only candidate answering the challenge is Mondaire Jones,” Neidhardt said, calling him the “progressive alternative.”

A spokesperson for Niou did not respond to a request to comment on the race.

Meanwhile, Goldman’s campaign spokesman, Simone Kanter, said that their endorsements and polling performance show he is building the broadest coalition. Kanter emphasized that Goldman promised to run a positive campaign and said it is “unfortunate” that it has become such a nasty fight.

Before the intramural bloodbath started, this race had formerly attracted bemused national headlines because beleaguered former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio used it to launch a political comeback—before poor performance in polls prompted him to drop out.

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Rivera and Niou—each backed by a range of state and local political power brokers—picked up a good deal of progressive support. Jones, who decided to run in this open seat after being boxed out of his Hudson Valley district by Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY), tried to make up for lost time by emphasizing his staunchly progressive voting record in Congress.

But the field was somewhat unsettled until Goldman, buoyed by strong fundraising and his own cash, powered his campaign into the lead in some polls. An effort from progressives to slow his momentum turned into an all-out scramble when The New York Times endorsed him last week.

That coveted nod was a game-changing development at the tail end of a campaign in which Goldman had failed to make much of an impression among some in the city’s political scene.

“Whoever gets The New York Times endorsement will win,” said one New York Democratic insider. “I don’t think the last-minute campaign against Dan is going to stop him a week before the primary.”

There is plenty of progressive consternation over the Times endorsement. For one, it came packaged with endorsements of two other white candidates in competitive primaries—and did not even mention Niou or Rivera, two women of color in the race—offending many Democrats of color in the city.

On top of that, a report in the left-wing outlet The Intercept suggested that Goldman’s family ties with the Sulzbergers, who have owned the Times for many decades, played into the endorsement. Goldman’s campaign disputed the claim.

But to the Democratic insider, the Times nod also represented a broader ideological shift. “The extreme left has lost its mojo,” they said.

Coming off two election cycles in which upstart New York progressives toppled senior incumbent House members, 2022 is promising to be less of a bright spot for the party’s left wing in the Empire State, and nationally.

On Tuesday, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-NY)—the House Democratic campaign chair whose district switch prompted Jones to seek office downstate—is favored to hold off a challenge from left-wing state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi.

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While some notables, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), endorsed against Maloney, key figures on the left have stayed on the sidelines of the 10th District race.

That’s likely a reflection of the city’s complicated factional politics and the fact that Jones—an incumbent even though he doesn’t represent this district—is well liked among his progressive colleagues in the House.

No members of the so-called “Squad”—of which Niou hopes to be a member—have endorsed a candidate, nor have many national Democratic figures, save for Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), both of whom are backing Jones.

Perhaps the politician endorsement that stirred the pot most in the final days before the campaign was one from the most hated man in the Democratic Party: Trump.

On Wednesday night, Trump issued statements giving his “endorsement” to Goldman, gloating that the impeachment failed and tauntingly saying he’d be “compassionate” to Republicans.

Although it was a fairly obvious troll, Niou’s campaign quickly took the bait, and on Thursday issued a fundraising statement saying Goldman was “endorsed by Trump” and that Niou was not.

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Soon, Goldman tweeted that if anyone took Trump’s endorsement seriously, “then they simply don’t understand Trump and are ill equipped to defend and protect our democracy.”

The Niou campaign didn’t respond to a question about Goldman’s statement and if they believed Trump was genuinely endorsing Goldman.

The Trump endorsement, intentionally or not, may have been a gift to Goldman, helping him refocus on the key theme of his campaign—countering Trump and his attacks on democratic institutions—in its final days.

“What Goldman has done well is, he’s remained really calm, and he’s good on TV,” said the New York-based Democratic operative, “Having been a Trump prosecutor, gone through that meat grinder and being attacked relentlessly, probably serves him well.”

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