'Insult to Democracy': Sanders Says Citizens United the Real Story of Bowman Defeat

Sen. Bernie Sanders embraces Rep. Jamaal Bowman at a rally in the Bronx on June 22, 2024.

(Photo: Steven Ferdman/GC Images)

'Insult to Democracy': Sanders Says Citizens United the Real Story of Bowman Defeat

"Campaigns should be about a clash of ideas, not which candidate can raise more money from the oligarchs," Sanders said after the defeat of Bowman, a progressive who was the target of huge dark-money spending.

U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders on Wednesday responded to the defeat of Rep. Jamaal Bowman, whom outside groups spent record-breaking sums to oust in a Democratic primary in New York this week, by condemning Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission and calling for a public campaign finance system.

Outside groups, mainly super political action committees (PACs), poured in more than $17.7 million to oust Bowman (D-N.Y.) and less than $3 million to help him. The beneficiary of the lopsided spending was challenger George Latimer, a Westchester County official, who won the primary with about 58% of the vote to Bowman's 42%.

Progressives have decried the role of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), which, through its super PAC, paid more than $14 million for ads that either supported Latimer, who is pro-Israel, or attacked Bowman, who is pro-Palestine—the most ever spent on a U.S. House of Representatives race by a non-party-affiliated group.

Sanders (I-Vt.), in a statement, drew a wider target: the campaign finance system that AIPAC was able to exploit.

He called for a reversal of the "disastrous" Citizens United decision—a 2010 Supreme Court ruling that allowed unlimited outside spending on elections, on the basis of freedom of speech, increasing the power of rich donors and corporations.

"Buying elections is not 'freedom of speech'," Sanders, who campaigned for Bowman, said.

"It is an outrage and an insult to democracy that we maintain a corrupt campaign finance system which allows billionaire-funded super PACs to buy elections," he added.

Sanders' statement comes amid a flurry of analyses of the race from legacy media outlets, many of which frame the result as a blow to the left wing of the Democratic Party.

"Bowman's win in 2020 seemed to herald an ascendant progressive movement," according toThe New York Times. "In 2024, the center is regaining power."

As The Atlanticreported, "The New York progressive veered too far left of his constituents."

Neither article mentions Citizens United or campaign finance reform, or the fact that redistricting in 2022 left far more of Bowman's seat in the suburbs than had been the case in 2020, with just a small slice in the Bronx that remained in the 16th district.

Bowman won 84% of the vote in the northern slice of the Bronx that remained in his district, but was beaten soundly in Westchester County, which is wealthy and has a sizable Jewish population that mobilized for Latimer.

Bowman had weaknesses as a candidate that may also make his race of limited use as a bellwether in other centrist v. progressive primary battles, the most notable of which features Rep. Cori Bush (D-Mo.) against an AIPAC-backed challenger, Wesley Bell. Polling shows a very tight race.

Bowman received some criticism after pleading guilty to a misdemeanor for pulling a fire alarm at the Capitol last year, in what he said was an accident. He has also been accused of "subpar constituent work," according toThe New Republic.

Most notably, Bowman was caught on video saying that claims of Hamas sexual violence on October 7 were unsubstantiated "propaganda," though he later reversed his position and condemned the sexual violence.

If the political establishment has drawn significance from the Bowman defeat, it's a significance that progressives to some degree invited, albeit in a different framing.

During the campaign, Sanders had called the Bowman-Latimer race "one of the most important in the modern history of America" because it was about whether the "billionaire class" could control Congress.

For Sanders, the lesson of the race should be the need for fundamental reforms, including the abolishment of Citizens United and the institution of public campaign finance mechanisms.

"We must also move to the public funding of elections," Sanders said. "Campaigns should be about a clash of ideas, not which candidate can raise more money from the oligarchs."

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