Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., faces the toughest primary challenge of his 41-year career Tuesday. Yet even that effort, fueled by Rangel's age and ethics problems and a steady march of demographic change in his redrawn congressional district, might not be enough to topple the third-most senior member of the House of Representatives. Tuesday's Democratic primary will be another test of the speed with which racial change translates from the population to the halls of Washington. But first and foremost, Rangel's prospects hinge on whether the congressman can harness the power of his long incumbency.
State Sen. Adriano Espaillat, a Dominican-American, emerged as Rangel's strongest challenger during the campaign in the redistricted Harlem seat, though former Democratic National Committee official Clyde Williams has also won praise for his efforts. The primary shaped up as a sequel to the 2010 race, where a field of Democrats challenged Rangel in the midst of his ethics investigation and held him to 51 percent of the primary vote. Espaillat, Williams, and two other candidates have argued this year that, in the wake of Rangel's censure by the House, he is no longer able to advocate effectively for the district and that the time for change has come. In particular, Williams pitched that his Washington experience would allow him to hit the ground running next January.
But 2012 has evolved into a stiffer test for Rangel because the district, dominated by Harlem and African-American politics since 1944, is now 55 percent Hispanic after New York's redistricting. Espaillat is contending to become the first Dominican-American congressman at the same time that the 13th District's Dominican population has swelled, and he has focused his efforts on politicking in heavily Latino areas to try and capitalize on the community's new numerical advantage.
Rangel has strengths of his own, though. Interestingly, despite the redistricted seat's new majority-Hispanic status, it also has over 24,500 more African-American residents than the old version of the district. And Rangel's four-decade career in Congress has engendered abiding loyalty among many blacks and a large swath of Democratic voters in the area. Even though Rangel only won 51 percent in the 2010 primary, he actually won more primary votes (over 26,000) than all but one House candidate in the entire state.
That suggests a robust turnout operation at the heart of Rangel's experienced campaign, and indeed, Rangel significantly overperformed in the 15 precincts with the heaviest turnout in 2010, according to a Hotline analysis: The incumbent won over 60 percent of the vote in those areas, netting almost a tenth of his total votes. What's more, turnout lagged in the most heavily Hispanic precincts of Rangel's old district last cycle, suggesting that Espaillat has a lot of work to do if he wishes to translate the population's sheer numbers into a strong foundation of primary votes.
That has been a challenge rivaling alchemy in other Hispanic-heavy districts this year. In Texas, Hispanic Democrat Domingo Garcia -- who, like Espaillat, argued that his candidacy gave local Hispanics a historic opportunity -- finished a distant second in the primary and remains an underdog in the 33rd District runoff against an African-American state legislator, Marc Veasey, despite the seat's 61 percent Hispanic population. Low Hispanic turnout contributed to Democrats' failure to advance a candidate to the general election in the all-party primary in California's 31st District, which is just under half Hispanic.
Low rates of citizenship, registration, and participation among the Hispanic population remain major obstacles for Hispanic politicians in primaries. Still, Espaillat has been campaigning tirelessly while Rangel, now 82 years old, was slowed during the primary by back surgery. Espaillat is also getting an assist from the Campaign for Primary Accountability, the anti-incumbent super PAC that has been involved in all three of the other primaries where challengers toppled sitting members this cycle. The PAC has spent a relatively paltry $12,000 on the primary so far, according to Federal Election Commission filings, but a 501(c)4 arm of the group is spending an undisclosed sum on voter education activities. Another super PAC, the pro-Williams Campaign for Our Future, has hit Rangel via direct mail, while the New York League of Conservation Voters has backed the incumbent with a direct mail expenditure.
The CPA's voter education activity underlines one other wild card in the race: New Yorkers usually nominate candidates in September, and no one is used to having June primaries. That layers an extra element of uncertainty onto Rangel's campaign, though it also could work to his advantage as the best-known candidate.
Tuesday's contest will be a test of many things. The one that has gotten the most attention in the past few months is the power of the rising Hispanic majority in upper Manhattan and the Bronx. Ultimately, though, this primary revolves around the incumbent, and Rangel's fate depends on his opponents' attempts to paint his career as past its sell-by date and on his own ability to turn out the droves of supporters who buoyed him under similar circumstances in 2010. Rangel has the tools to deliver another victory following the turnout model another member, Democratic Rep. Bill Pascrell, employed in a smashing primary win just across the Hudson River earlier this month. The question is whether Rangel harnessed that power effectively for the second primary in a row.
Alex Brown and Gram Slattery contributed