Hillary Clinton delivered her first Democratic primary endorsement in a 2020 House race on Monday, throwing her support behind Representative Eliot L. Engel of New York, who is trying to fend off a serious challenge from his left after more than three decades in Congress.
“I have worked with Eliot Engel as first lady, as senator from New York and as secretary of state,” Mrs. Clinton said in a statement provided to The New York Times. “Every step of the way, his No. 1 priority has always remained the same: delivering for his constituents.”
The endorsement puts Mrs. Clinton on the opposite side of a wave of progressives who are backing Mr. Engel’s leading challenger, Jamaal Bowman, a middle school principal, including Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont; Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York; the Working Families Party; Justice Democrats; and MoveOn, the progressive advocacy group.
Mr. Engel, who represents the 16th District in the Bronx and Westchester County and has served in Congress since 1989, faced criticism this spring for his absence from New York during the coronavirus pandemic. When he returned for a news conference at the start of June, Mr. Engel could be heard on camera angling for a chance to speak.
“If I didn’t have a primary, I wouldn’t care,” he said twice.
The recording prompted a surge of support for Mr. Bowman, who announced on Monday that his campaign had raised $750,000 in the first 15 days of June — half the total he had raised in the entire campaign.
Shortly after the news of Mrs. Clinton’s endorsement broke, Mr. Bowman posted an animated GIF on Twitter of President Barack Obama brushing off his shoulders and a link to a donation page. (Mr. Obama has not endorsed in the race.)
Dave Wasserman, who handicaps congressional races as the House editor of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said this month that Mr. Engel was “the next House incumbent in serious danger of losing a primary.”
Only one Democratic incumbent has lost a primary so far in 2020: Representative Dan Lipinski of Illinois, who opposed abortion rights and lost in a rematch to Marie Newman, whom he had narrowly defeated two years earlier.
Mr. Bowman’s chances in New York improved this month when one of Mr. Engel’s other challengers, Andom Ghebreghiorgis, dropped out and endorsed Mr. Bowman.
Mrs. Clinton, who lives in a neighboring district, is the latest in a string of establishment Democrats to announce their support in an effort to save Mr. Engel, who is the chairman of the powerful House Foreign Affairs Committee. Other recent endorsements included Speaker Nancy Pelosi; the House majority whip, James E. Clyburn; the House Democratic Caucus chairman, Hakeem Jeffries; and Representative Adam B. Schiff, a favorite foil of President Trump’s as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
But none are as big a name as Mrs. Clinton, who chose to give Mr. Engel her first endorsement of any Democratic incumbent facing a primary in 2020 (she had backed one other House candidate, Christy Smith, in a California special election).
Mrs. Clinton carried Westchester County with 66 percent of the vote in the presidential primary race against Mr. Sanders in 2016, and won in the Bronx with 68 percent.
In her statement, Mrs. Clinton hailed Mr. Engel’s record, including his work on the Violence Against Women Act, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and bringing federal aid to New York after the Sept. 11 attacks.
“As chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, he has helped hold this administration accountable, including by uncovering the illegal firing of the inspector general; secure our elections against foreign interference; and protect dedicated Foreign Service officers from political retribution,” Mrs. Clinton said. “He is deeply committed to working with our allies to maintain American leadership on the global stage.”
Outside super PACs have entered the race, as well.
The Working Families Party and Justice Democrats have announced plans for a $500,000-plus effort to oust Mr. Engel and are airing an ad featuring Mr. Engel’s “I wouldn’t care” remark.
On the other side, a group called the Democratic Majority for Israel has reported more than $600,000 in spending for Mr. Engel.