(CN) — After clinching the Democratic nomination, former Vice President Joe Biden sailed to an easy victory in a New York presidential primary contest called minutes after polls closed on Tuesday evening. Freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez easily held onto her seat a few hours later.
The two victories, in a night otherwise marked by delay as election authorities count absentee ballots, showed two general trends in the early returns. Democratic voters stood by their presidential nominee while appearing to call loudly for progressive change in local races.
New York’s presidential primary race almost did not occur after state election officials cancelled the contest after Biden’s sole remaining challenger Senator Bernie Sanders dropped out, justifying the decision on the coronavirus.
A court ruling reinstating the contests gave Biden’s challengers an opportunity to rack up delegates for the Democratic convention, even if the vice president’s nomination was never in question.
The lightning-speed victory stands in stark contrast to the long slog predicted in tabulating results of down-ballot races.
New Yorkers across the state requested an estimated 1.7 million absentee ballots, a startling figure considering that the last presidential primary in April 2016 brought out some 1.97 million participants.
With 62 counties and 27 congressional districts, New York has a wealth of politically important contests across the state, and the results of those contests likely will be the subject of anticipation for days and weeks to come.
Early indications, however, point to potentially seismic changes on Capitol Hill.
By midnight Eastern time, middle school principal Jamaal Bowman held onto a commanding lead against 16-term incumbent Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel, the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
With 31,795 ballots counted at that time — and 471 of 732 electoral districts reporting — Bowman soared ahead by a 59%-to-35% margin, in the early stages of counting.
If those numbers hold firm, a powerful committee will need a new member of Congress at the helm. Foreign Affairs under Engel’s leadership has pursued an investigation into Trump firing State Department official Steve Linick, with hearings slated to begin this week.
Backed by Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez, Bowman’s insurgent campaign caught headwinds from the political establishment with a stunning New York Times endorsement earlier this month.
During his political rise, Bowman benefited from the incumbent’s missteps. Engel weathered criticism for staying in Washington as the coronavirus battered his district in the Bronx and Westchester.
Attempting to mollify the ensuing bad press and popular anger, Engel returned home to speak in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, only for the gesture to backfire when the Democratic leader appeared to be caught on a hot mic announcing — twice — that he only cared about the protest because of the primary.
Footage of the gaffe went viral, along with a cascade of embarrassing news reports that went with it.
During a 10:30 p.m. speech to his supporters, Bowman noted that the subject of those protests was not a campaign abstraction for him.
“I’m a black man in America, raised by a single mom, spent some time in the housing projects, lived in rent-stabilized apartments, went to public schools my entire life, grew up during the crack-cocaine epidemic, which hurt and ravaged many parts of my family as well as my friends’ families,” Bowman said.
Though the results are far from final, Bowman appeared confident about his prospects and the strength of a new generation of progressive leaders.
“So tonight, as we celebrate, we don’t just celebrate me as an individual,” he said. “We celebrate this movement, a movement designed to push back against a system that’s literally killing us.”
The candidate then launched into his sole direct swipe at his rival.
“Let me tell you something right now: Eliot Engel, and I’ll say his name once, used to say that he was a thorn in the side of Donald Trump,” Bowman said. “But do you know what Donald Trump is afraid of more than anything else? A black man with power,” a line that drew loud applause and cheers.
Citing the promising early returns, Bowman concluded: “I’m excited. I’m happy. I am fired up. I cannot wait to get to Congress and cause problems for the people in there who have been maintaining a status quo that is literally killing our children.”
Democratic Representative Carolyn Maloney, who took over the House Oversight Committee after civil rights champion Elijah Cummings’ death, is also fending off an attack from her left by Suraj Patel.
By midnight, Maloney held onto a narrow lead with 33,470 ballots counted, leading Patel by a 40% to 38% margin.
In their attempts to topple two of House Democrats’ most longstanding leaders, Bowman and Patel hope to replicate the stunning victory by Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated party favorite Joe Crowley in 2018.
Demonstrating her staying power, Ocasio-Cortez took a commanding 50-point lead against her nearest rival, CNBC contributor Michelle Caruso-Cabrera, with 29,580 ballots counted.
The tallies by midnight stood at 69% for the congresswoman to 18% for her closest challenger.
In a poor and blue congressional district in the South Bronx, a 12-candidate race has garnered national attention not only because of the uncommonly crowded field, but also because of the surprisingly strong showing of a pro-Trump Democrat with a history of anti-gay and anti-abortion remarks.
The seat had been occupied since 1990 by Representative Jose Serrano, whose Parkinson’s diagnosis pulled him out of contention this year, leaving Democrats anxious about his potential successor, New York City Councilman Rubén Díaz Sr. The virulently homophobic politician called the City Council a body “controlled by the homosexual community” and compared abortion to the Holocaust.
Left-leaning anxieties that the country’s most Democratic district would cast their ballot for a candidate accused of bigotry appeared to be premature. Two of Díaz’s rivals took an early lead against him by midnight, including Ritchie Torres just shy of 30% of the vote and Michael Blake with 17%, with 29,360 ballots counted.
As for the Republican primaries to watch, Trump-backed state Assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis took an early lead against her National Rifle Association-endorsed rival: former prosecutor Joe Caldarera.
The winner will face off against Congressman Max Rose, a Democrat representing Staten Island, the city’s most conservative borough.
In the state’s 22nd district, Tuesday’s primary appears to be shaping up towards a political rematch over a seat held by Democrats only twice in 68 years. In 2018, Congressman Anthony Brindisi wrested that seat from Republican Claudia Tenney, who has been in a comfortable early lead against challenger George Phillips.
With 22,503 ballots counted on Tuesday evening, Tenney led Phillips by a 68%-to-30% margin.
Election authorities emphasize, however, that for days and possibly weeks in the local contests, most races will stay up for grabs until the final count is confirmed.
Read Courthouse News’ preview coverage of the New York primary race here, and look out for our ongoing coverage of the results of key races.