It’s just after 9:00 P.M. on Tuesday as the polls close in New York’s 19th congressional district. Jeff Beals’ inner circle huddles over empty pizza boxes, laptops and phones at their campaign headquarters – a converted tattoo parlor – in downtown Woodstock.
Across the street, a watch party buzzes on optimistically at a cool little bar called Station Bar & Curio. This most bizarre primary race is about to come to an end. With an absurd seven candidates and nearly $7 million raised, the race has exposed growing divisions among Democrats, with Beals representing an increasingly impactful insurgent wing of the party.
The last time this district held a Democratic primary, Zephyr Teachout beat Will Yandik in a race where fewer than 20,000 voters turned out. More voters are expected this time, but still, many predict the gigantic field means a ridiculously low number of votes – perhaps 8,000 or less – will determine the race. The smallest, most random factor might end up deciding everything.
As the polls close, Beals seems optimistic. There’s rumor that turnout is big in areas where Bernie Sanders supporters voted in the 2016 presidential primary, which would be good for him. Beals has also just been very positively profiled on an episode of This American Life.
“I’m feeling good, man,” he says, hopefully.
As the returns come in, Beals’ team graciously allows me to sit in and watch it unfold in real time.
9:19: A surreptitious glance at the New York Times total for the first returns is not encouraging, even if it is just for 2 percent of the vote. Antonio Delgado, the leading money-raiser and widely considered the favorite, has 30.2 percent of the vote. Beals is second-to-last with 9.8 percent. Both percentages will change significantly as the night goess on – but it’s not a good sign.
9:40: “Clegg is winning Ulster!”
Returns start coming in from Ulster County, which contains the district’s biggest city, Kingston. Trial lawyer Dave Clegg, Beals’ chief progressive rival, is surprisingly in the lead there, with 345 votes to Beals’ 161.
The air goes out of the room. Everyone present knows that a strong showing from Clegg will make Beals’ path very difficult.
I feel like a monster. I have been very complimentary to Clegg in my write-ups of the race, comparing him to both a saint and a character in a Frank Capra movie. Meanwhile, I’d compared the iconoclastic Beals to a gibbon let loose at an aristocrats’ ball. At the time, I thought it was a compliment, but now I wonder if I should have brought a cyanide pill.
9:48: “Flynn is third in his own county!”
Candidate Brian Flynn, the former Citibank executive toward whom Beals seems to feel a particular distaste, has a house in the town of Hunter. He boasts on his web page that he is “the third generation in his family to call Greene County home.” A Beals staffer jokes that it’s the third generation of Flynn family vacation homes.
Now the results for Greene County are coming in and Flynn is nowhere to be found. He seems to be doing poorly in Ulster as well, which might be a result of a late gaffe in the race.
Flynn had run an ad with the caption, “Billionaires and corporations have rigged the system against us,” while brandishing a $9,000 Rolex. He later told The New Yorker, “The Dalai Lama has fifteen Rolexes,” a statement that added significantly to the overall weirdness of the episode, for Flynn, for the Dalai Lama, for everyone.
Nobody in this room is sad to see Flynn doing poorly on a personal level, but as far as Beals’ chances go, Flynn’s nose-dive is the bookend to Clegg’s rise.
Flynn is supposedly positioned as the candidate with the money to compete on the big stage, but also the progressive positions to win populist hearts – a you-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter solution to the Sanders-Clinton divide.
It’s a formula designed to take votes away from other heavily funded candidates like Delgado and Pat Ryan, and Beals probably needs Flynn to do just that. But if Flynn doesn’t make inroads in some of the far-reaching corners of this massive district, it probably spells doom for progressive candidates like Clegg and Beals.
And Flynn doesn’t seem to be doing well.
10:00: “CNN calls for Ocasio!”
A few hours to the south, in New York’s 14th District in the Bronx, community organizer Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is declared an early winner over incumbent Rep. Joe Crowley.
Crowley, who was said to have been in line to challenge Nancy Pelosi for the Speaker’s chair should the Democrats retake the house, had reportedly turned to the BGR lobbying group to help raise money to stave off the challenge from Ocasio-Cortez.
BGR is an acronym representing the names of founding partners Haley Barbour, Ed Rogers and Lanny Griffith, all hardcore Republicans. Ocasio-Cortez, meanwhile, is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America who ran on a platform nearly identical to that of Beals.
The loss of Crowley will be compared endlessly to the defeat of then-majority leader Eric Cantor by David Brat in 2014. Whether or not the primary will end up having that kind of import remains to be seen, but it feels like a significant shake-up for a Democratic Party that for ages has tended to resent and suppress newcomers who try to jump the line.
After Crowley’s shocking loss, Bronx Borough president Ruben Diaz even says out loud the sentiment “establishment” Democrats across the country always seem to be thinking: “It’s unfortunate that he had a primary.”
The crew in Beals’ office is happy for Ocasio-Cortez, but there’s some sadness, too – it increasingly looks like Beals won’t be part of the victorious-progressives storyline.
10:21: There’s a flicker of hope as Beals moves into a tie for third, according to the New York Times tracker. Leader Delgado’s percentage total keeps dropping, but probably not enough. Beals campaign adviser Bennet Ratcliff shakes his head as he looks at the totals from Duchess and Ulster Counties. Beals isn’t making his targets in either place.
Time is running out.
10:23: Results keep coming in from Ulster. There are apparently five write-in votes there, nobody knows for whom. An incredulous voice in the Beals war room wonders how a race with seven candidates can produce five write-ins.
10:36: When 100 percent of the votes from Duchess County are reported, Beals comes in with a telling 666 votes. There’s a mock cheer for that number, but everyone also knows there’s no way that’s not a bad omen.
The reality of the race is felt in the faraway towns and regions where Delgado, who raised over $2.2 million, keeps racking up good numbers, even when he doesn’t win. He doesn’t get wiped out anywhere. Same with Ryan, the second-leading fundraiser. You could look at this data in a few ways – either Delgado ran a very good race (his commercials were widely praised), or it’s a demonstration of what raising money wins you in a geographically challenging district.
Beals, who has an admirable instinct to find the humor in things when in a jam, begins joking about his campaign signs, which read “FIGHT CORPORATE POWER.”
“Maybe we should just buy stickers that we can paste over the ‘fight’ part,” he says. “It could read, ‘ACCEPT CORPORATE POWER.'”
When I suggest, “SUBMIT,” the history teacher shakes his head seriously.
“You’d need a preposition for that. It would have to be ‘SUBMIT TO,'” he says. “I can’t afford the preposition.”
10:57: Beals confers with Ratcliff for a few minutes and decides to walk over to Station to deliver the bad news to his supporters. There’s gallows humor and a lot of attempts at encouragement. Beals, again, keeps finding jokes to sustain his mood.
“Damn. I was planning on being so gracious in victory!” he quips.
11:01: The NY-19 winner is Delgado, who emerges triumphant with 7,690 votes, or 21.9 percent of the total. Gareth Rhodes, whose strategy centered on hitting every location in the district by Winnebago, finishes a surprising (and close) second, with 18.3 percent. Cruelly, Beals finishes in an exact tie for fourth with the hated Flynn, with each man pulling 4,608 votes.
Beals addresses the crowd at Station.
“There are enough results to see that this is not going to be our night,” he says. “But it is our moment.”
Beals is just 41. This was his first race. He’ll surely be back, in one form or another. It’s evident that he loves campaigning and really enjoyed the adventure of the race, which is not true of all politicians. To win without financial backing is a difficult thing.
It’s also not easy to win while openly inviting the scorn of the national bureaucracy, by talking about issues like the influence of corporate money on the party. No one can say Beals wasn’t completely open with voters about what he learned about running for office, a rare and commendable thing in itself.
Meanwhile, along with the defeat of Crowley by Ocasio-Cortez, the victory in the Maryland gubernatorial primary by former NAACP president Ben Jealous over Prince George’s County Executive Rushern Baker constituted evidence of the moment Beals mentioned. Same with New York’s 24th district, where candidate Dana Balter – endorsed by Our Revolution – beat Juanita Perez-Williams, who had earned the red-to-blue endorsement from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
It’s too early to say what any of these results mean, except this: The Democratic Party is not one thing anymore. It’s now, far more genuinely than before, a party of competing ideas, which is healthy in the long run, whether its national leaders know it or not. You could see some of the benefit of the increased competition of ideas in Beals’ district, where turnout far exceeded the 2016 numbers – over 34,000 votes, to less than 19,000 last time. What that means for November, we’ll soon find out.