After NY Squad loss, all eyes are on Cori Bush and Wesley Bell

With a little less than six weeks before St. Louis voters cast their ballots on August 6, U.S. Representative Cori Bush appears to be facing increasing headwinds in her bid for a third term representing Missouri’s First Congressional District. In just this past week, she’s seen a political ally fall as well as the release of a poll showing her challenger on the rise.

On Tuesday, voters in New York’s 16th Congressional District, which encompasses a sliver of the Bronx and several New York City suburbs, rejected Jamaal Bowman’s reelection bid in favor of a more moderate challenger, George Latimer. Many have seen this election as the closest analog to Bush’s race against St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Wesley Bell. 

Like Bowman, Bush was elected to Congress in 2020 and is a member of the progressive cadre known as the Squad. Both have been outspoken in their criticisms of Israel, and both of their challengers have received significant financial support from American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a single-issue political action committee that supports candidates who support Israel. 

Bush’s campaign has attempted to turn those AIPAC donations into a liability for Bell, saying in a press release that taking money from the organization ties Bell to “far-right Donald Trump megadonors.” It’s part of a larger strategy of trying to brand Bell as a Republican—a consistent attack levied by Bush and now being echoed by at least one independent PAC in a mailer to the district. (“Wesley Bell is bankrolled by a lobbying group funded by Republican megadonors,” it reads.) 

Similar allegations were at the center of a recent Huffington Post story about Bell: He volunteered his services as campaign manager for a Republican seeking to represent St. Louis in Congress in 2006. A spokesman for Bell noted the volunteer campaign work for Mark J. Byrne had been almost 20 years ago and done by Bell for a longtime friend “in spite of their differences in political affiliations and positions on many issues.”

Last month, Bush’s campaign also claimed in a fundraising text message that Bell would not “commit to protecting our reproductive rights”—a claim met with significant skepticism (one commentator went so far as to say it had “zero basis in reality”). Bell was not only highly critical of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, but he also subsequently vowed to not prosecute Missouri’s anti-abortion law that took effect in the wake of that ruling. 

He was one of a number of prosecutors who signed onto a statement saying in part that they would, “decline to use our offices’ resources to criminalize reproductive health decisions and commit to exercise our well-settled discretion and refrain from prosecuting those who seek, provide, or support abortions.” That was in line with what Bell has long said publicly about abortion, telling the Post-Dispatch in 2019, “It is infuriating that this fundamental constitutional principal—and the humanity of women—is being put into play for political purposes.”

Bush is also not without her own occasional alignment with the GOP. A state-of-the-race memo released by the Bell campaign yesterday highlighted the fact that she was one of only six Democrats to side with 200 Republicans in voting against the November 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. In March 2022, she was one of only two Democrats to join 15 Republicans in voting against a ban on Russian oil in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. That vote saw Bush side with several high-profile members of the far-right wing of the GOP, including Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, and Marjorie Taylor Greene. 

Bush justified her vote against the infrastructure bill by saying that she wanted it passed in tandem with another bill that would have funded social services, such as universal preschool. She said she was against the ban on Russian oil imports because it wasn’t accompanied by a process to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine and withdrawal of Russian military from the country. 

Analysts say it’s up for debate how much insight into the August 6 primary can be gleaned from the results earlier this week in New York. University of Missouri–St. Louis political science professor Anita Manion says the Bowman defeat is only one factor to look at in terms of forecasting what’s going to happen in Missouri—though, she notes, of all the Squad members, Bowman and Bush are the two who drew the most serious challengers this cycle.  Wall Street Journal’s Natalie Andrews pointed out in the wake of Bowman’s loss, it’s not necessarily the cause of a candidate’s struggles. It could instead be a harbinger of them. “[AIPAC] can’t just go into a race and make it competitive, but if they see a race that has an opening that could be competitive if they spent a little bit of money…that’s what these groups are looking for,” Andrews said. “And the Bush race is one that they have their eyes on.”

A new poll this week commissioned by the pro-Israel advocacy group Democratic Majority for Israel showed Bell with a 1 percentage point lead. (The margin of error: 4.9 percent.) Bell’s standing among those surveyed had jumped 17 points since a similar poll in January. The prosecutor had made gains “across every major demographic,” including race, gender, and age, as well as on both sides of the city-county line, according to a press release by the Washington, D.C.-based market research firm that conducted the poll. The firm called the race “essentially tied.” That poll also found that among voters with a proven track record of showing up in primaries, Bell expands his lead to 10 points, 49 to 39.

But there could be any number of surprises in the campaign’s final six weeks. Recently, a video resurfaced that showed Bush telling PBS she had healed a homeless woman’s tumors by merely laying hands on her—which engendered both national news coverage and plenty of eyerolls.

As for Bell, in April, a judge delayed the trial in the civil lawsuit filed against him over allegations of gender discrimination. Brought by a former prosecutor in his office, that suit alleges that an unspecified supervisor in the prosecuting attorney’s office had a sexual relationship with an unnamed subordinate. The details remain unknown; if that suit goes to trial, it now won’t be until after the election.

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