The first duty of any politician chairing one of the Democratic or Republican parties’ myriad campaign committees is to protect their party’s incumbents, whether they be state legislators, governors or members of the House of Representatives.
This means occasionally passing up an opportunity to pick up a seat, and instead spending time and money to protect a vulnerable member. It means helping those members with messaging, hiring key staffers, and spending thousands, if not millions, of dollars on advertisements to help them win reelection.
It does not, generally speaking and for obvious reasons, mean directly challenging one of those members in a primary.
But that is exactly what New York Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, a veteran House member who now chairs House Democrats’ campaign arm, apparently decided to do this week after a court released potential new congressional maps in his home state.
“While the process to draw these maps without the legislature is against the will of voters, if the newly-announced maps are finalized, I will run in New York’s 17th Congressional District,” Maloney wrote on Twitter on Monday. “NY-17 includes my home and many of the Hudson Valley communities I currently represent.”
The 17th District is currently represented by Rep. Mondaire Jones, a first-term progressive who is one of the first two openly gay Black men elected to Congress. It’s also slightly friendlier to Democrats than the 18th District: Joe Biden won the 17th District by 10 points in 2020, and the 18th District by 8 points.
Maloney’s decision to potentially challenge Jones ― whose only available alternative is to challenge a different incumbent member, Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) ― has caused a substantial intraparty donnybrook, well chronicled by Politico.
Swing district members are privately discussing ousting Maloney as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, even though the brutally tough midterm elections are just six months away. Progressive members are not-so-silently criticizing him for suggesting he’s a better “fit” to represent a mostly white suburban district.
“The thinly veiled racism here is profoundly disappointing. A black man is ideologically ill suited to represent a Westchester County District that he represents presently and won decisively in 2020?” Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-N.Y.), another first-term progressive, wrote on Twitter. “Outrageous.”
Maloney insists his motives are innocent: He lives in the 17th District, and the district includes two of the four counties he’s represented for a decade. He does not want to move his family.
His allies also note the original map approved by the state legislature, which Maloney played a major role in crafting, actually put him in a more difficult district than either of the two districts he could theoretically run in today. (The New York Court of Appeals ruled the original map was a partisan gerrymander, in violation of the state constitution.)
At a press conference on Tuesday, Maloney said a “broken process has produced a broken result.”
“From my point of view, I’m just running where I landed,” he said. “If someone else is looking at the district as well, obviously we’ll try and work through that as colleagues and friends, ultimately this is up to the voters, and that’s what it should be.”
Still, critics say Maloney’s move sends the wrong message to his fellow Democrats on multiple fronts:
• In the grand scheme of things, the difference between a Biden +8 seat and a Biden +10 seat is not hugely significant. But choosing to run in the safer seat when you’re the person charged with winning difficult seats for Democrats seems to indicate a lack of faith in the party’s chances.
• At the same time, an incumbent like Maloney is far more likely to be able to hold a Biden +8 seat in a GOP-leaning midterm election than a newcomer would be.
• The Democratic Party has explicitly pushed for an increase in the number of Black and Latino members of Congress in recent years, and challenging one of the youngest Black members of Congress goes against that broader goal.
It remains possible a Maloney vs. Jones primary never happens. Jones could instead choose to run in the 19th District, an unquestionably Democratic seat now held by Bowman. But Bowman, who is also Black, is part of the group of progressive lawmakers known as “the Squad” and would almost certainly receive the backing of the majority of the progressive coalition.
“Trying to take out Bowman would destroy any chance Mondaire ever had to gain national recognition, and likely end his career,” Max Berger, a progressive strategist who was one of the co-founders of Justice Democrats, wrote on Twitter. “Terrible choice.”
There’s also the chance this entire conversation is moot. New York state courts appointed Jonathan Cervas, a political scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, to serve as a special master and draw the congressional maps. What he released on Monday is officially a draft, and a final version set to be unveiled on Friday could be substantially different.
Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.), the fourth-highest ranking House Democrat and an ally of Maloney’s, has already slammed the special master-drawn map as racist for drawing multiple Black members of Congress into the same district.
“The draft redistricting map shamelessly targets historic Black representation in NY, and places four Black members of Congress into the same districts,” Jeffries wrote in an email to supporters on Tuesday night. “The new map only adds to the gratuitous national pattern targeting districts represented by members of the Congressional Black Caucus. This tactic would make Jim Crow blush.”