Twenty-two term incumbent Rep. Charlie Rangel was locked in a close race Wednesday morning against his Democratic challenger State Sen. Adriano Espaillat. With 100 percent of precincts reporting in New York’s 13th District, Rangel has 47.4 percent and Espaillat has 43.6 percent, with just 1,828 votes separating the two.
Rangel declared victory earlier in the evening in a speech to supporters, but the Associated Press said they would not call the race because an “an undetermined number of absentee and provisional ballots” were ”outstanding” and election officials told the AP “no further information” would be “released on those ballots tonight.”
It was somewhat of a re-match as Rangel beat Espaillat in 2012, that time by a mere 1,000 votes. This was Rangel’s most serious challenge, but polling in recent days did show an advantage for the 84-year-old incumbent.
The 13th District located in Harlem has always been predominantly African American and the center of black political power, but features a Hispanic majority, a slight demographic shift that was thought to possibly favor Espaillat, a Dominican-American.
Fredrick Harris, a professor of political science at Columbia University, said despite the demographic changes it’s possible Rangel will able to still pull off what looks like a victory because of “ethnic succession,” a theory that an ethnic group new to a district, despite being a majority in the community, takes time to “politically awaken.”
“There is a lag effect because the group is becoming more politically aware over time,” Harris said. “It takes time to become politically aware and (the previous ethnic majority) can hold on to power because they can.”
Rangel, who was first elected to represent the district in 1970, defeated the legendary Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. by a tiny margin after some ethics questions in Powell’s political career. Trying to return to Congress for a 23rd term, Rangel too has been dogged by ethics questions and was forced to resign as the first African-American chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee in 2010 after a series of ethical lapses involving improper fundraising and failure to pay taxes. He was censured by his own colleagues in 2010 and has never been able to regain the political clout that had made him arguably one of the most powerful Democrats in Congress.
Espaillat pushed a message that Rangel was too old, too damaged by scandal, as well as the embodiment of being entrenched in Washington, DC. Rangel was able to fight off those claims, appealing to younger voters in recent days and touting endorsements from high profile Democrats.
This primary season had been a hard one on elder statesmen. Sen. Thad Cochran was forced into a runoff, but did beat back his own challenger Tuesday. Ralph Hall, 91, fell to a challenger in May, but that too didn’t rub off on Rangel, who fought off claims by Espaillat that not only was he too disconnected, but after his censure he was less effective in Congress.
Rangel also had some big name support. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo came in with a last-minute endorsement for Rangel and former President Bill Clinton recorded a robo-call.
President Obama did not back Rangel, Democratic National Committee press secretary Michael Czin said in a statement earlier in the week.
“Like 2010 and 2012, the President will not be endorsing in this race. However, he believes that Mr. Rangel has been and continues to be an advocate for quality, affordable health care, fair wages and opportunity for all his constituents,” Czin said in a statement.
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