It has been underreported that Nadler faces a credible challenger in New York’s Democratic primary in 2020. Specifically, Nadler’s opponent is the capable-appearing Lindsey Boylan. Boylan — who is 35 years old, a recent deputy secretary for economic development for New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) and a daughter of a Marine — has several things going for her. She has raised more than $250,000, which might not sound like a lot but is already more than triple what Nadler’s Republican challenger raised in 2018. With nine months to go until the primary, this energetic young progressive may just be getting started.
Boylan has staked out a committed position to impeach Trump, and she accuses Nadler of being soft and ineffective as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. “We need a leader, not a follower,” she told Politico this month, adding that Nadler is “trying to place the blame on someone else, Nancy Pelosi. I don’t think that is a way to lead.” To state the obvious, Nadler looks a lot more like Joseph Crowley, the longtime incumbent whom Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) defeated in a 2018 primary, than he does a recruit for “the Squad.” Conversely, Boylan seems a more experienced version of Ocasio-Cortez.
To put it bluntly, Nadler is in a tough spot. You have to assume Pelosi has given him a pass to appear to be outside her control. The Judiciary Committee chair can look like he is proceeding with impeachment without going too far. This means Nadler must maintain some sort of political Brownian motion, always appearing to be on the move but never really going anywhere. Members of Congress have enjoyed reelection rates of 90 percent or higher since 2012, and primary challengers face a steeper hill to climb. But there are local factors that suggest Boylan might have a better chance than your average long-shot candidate.
The boroughs of New York have a history of Democrat insurgency that long predates Ocasio-Cortez. In 1970, Bella Abzug beat a 14-year incumbent in a primary in a district made up of parts of Manhattan. Two years later, Elizabeth Holtzman beat a 50-year incumbent (one of the House’s longest-serving members) in a Brooklyn district to become at the time the youngest woman ever elected to Congress. There is not only precedent at play here but also a pattern. Longtime incumbents House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Eliot L. Engel (D-N.Y.) and House Appropriations Committee Chairwoman Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.) also face primary challenges this cycle — in Engel’s case, one backed by the same Justice Democrats political action committee that helped propel Ocasio-Cortez to victory last year.
It’s impossible to determine exactly how much of Nadler’s push for impeachment is driven by a longing for the Klieg lights as opposed to the fear of an appealing young primary opponent. But no discussion of the internal workings of a Democratic House would be complete without a reference to legendary House Speaker Tip O’Neill, who is credited with saying that “all politics is local.” You can bet that this is something Nadler has brought up more than once in private discussions with Pelosi. In a year when Democrats are supposed to be on offense, a number of them are feeling threatened within their own party.