New York Democrats are gearing up for a contentious primary in a key swing district that’s pitting a former lawmaker against the sister of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D). 

Former Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-N.Y.) announced last week he would vie for his old seat in New York’s 17th District after redistricting forced him to run in a different district last cycle. Jones ended up losing that primary. Liz Gereghty, a small business owner and sister to Whitmer, announced in May she would also run for the seat, which is held by Rep. Mike Lawler (R-N.Y.).

The match-up is fueling some jitters over a potentially bruising primary in a seat that will prove crucial for the party’s hopes of retaking the House in 2024. 

“There’s no debate that we’re going to have a contentious primary, but Mondaire Jones won a contentious primary,” said Democratic strategist Evan Stavisky, who lives in the district but is unaligned with either candidate.

“The more that this is a referendum on the Republican control over the House, the more that the race gets nationalized, the better it is for whoever wins the primary,” he added.

The Empire State served as an unexpected silver lining for Republicans in the November midterms when the GOP swept a handful of key House races that ultimately helped them clinch a slim majority.

Among those Republicans who were a part of the red upset in New York was Lawler, who made headlines for unseating former Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (D-N.Y.), the then-chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign arm. 

Maloney had decided to run in New York’s 17th District, which Jones represented at the time, due to redistricting. That forced Jones to run in the 10th District to avoid an awkward member-on-member primary, but he later lost to current Rep. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.) in the primary.

Now, Jones is looking to recapture the Hudson Valley seat, which includes parts or all of Putnam, Rockland, Westchester and Dutchess counties. 

“Certainly he’s got some explaining to do … he talked about New York City being his home when he moved there. So I think he’s got some work cut out for him to explain that to Democrats and eventually to all voters in New York 17,” Stavisky said.

Still, many around the district are rallying around Jones, who notched endorsements from over 100 local leaders.

In an interview with The Hill, Jones touted his work in Congress, including voting in favor of the Inflation Reduction Act and helping steer $37 million to two dozen community projects.

“I have never been Washington’s choice, even as my former colleagues have spoken on the record now about my extraordinary contributions, even as a freshman member,” Jones said. 

“I would ask people to look at what people are saying in the lower Hudson Valley and not some laboratory at some national organization that has no idea what the dynamics are in this district and who may be doing favors for people in Michigan,” he added, jabbing Gereghty, who’s originally from the Great Lakes State.

Jones, who has also been hit by Gereghty’s campaign for running in the 10th District last cycle, defended his move, telling The Hill, “Voters in New York’s 17th Congressional District know I didn’t just wake up one day and decide not to represent the community that raised me.”

Gereghty, in the ad launching her campaign in May, touched on her experience as a small business owner and local school board member, in addition to key issues like abortion and gun control. Being the sister of Whitmer has also given her some notable press coverage: The Michigan governor is a rising star in the Democratic Party and has been floated as a 2028 presidential contender.

“We need to really kind of reengage with one another. I think that’s where we’re really falling apart,” Gereghty told The Hill. “You know, you’ve got one side going further and further to the extremes, and I genuinely don’t believe the answer is going to be moving further to the extremes but working with people to show people what government can do, how we can make it work.” 

Some national and local groups have started lining up behind her, including EMILY’s List and Tri-State Maxed-Out Women’s PAC. She also met with the executive director of the centrist New Democrat Coalition Action Fund, according to a person familiar with her campaign. Politico was the first to report the meeting. 

“Liz Whitmer Gereghty is the best candidate to defeat anti-choice Republican Congressman Mike Lawler,” said EMILY’s List spokeswoman Danni Wang in a statement. “Her unflinching commitment to the Hudson Valley as a 20-year resident, education advocate, former small business owner and mom of three will no doubt resonate with her district that has greatly benefitted from her local stewardship.”

While Jones already has some name ID from previously serving the district — between 70 and 75 percent of the current district were his constituents under the old maps — Gereghty is seen as an unknown quantity by some.

“I think she’s being received with interest. I mean, people were quite surprised. Most people didn’t know she existed among us,” said Putnam County Democratic Party Chairwoman Jen Colamonico, who added that low name ID isn’t “insurmountable.”

In explaining her decision to back Jones, Colamonico said the party has a tendency to “dwell on differences” between primary candidates.

“I don’t think we have time for that this year. I don’t think we have the luxury of really tearing ourselves apart,” she said. “I don’t think Sean Maloney was better off from having had a primary.”

Republicans, meanwhile, are eager to watch the primary unfold. 

“We’re grabbing our popcorn to watch the race to the left between Liz Gereghty and Mondaire Jones that will inevitably leave Democrats’ nominee broken and bruised,” Savannah Viar, spokeswoman for the House GOP’s campaign arm, said in a statement to The Hill. 

Lawler campaign spokesman Chris Russell pointed to the Republican’s latest fundraising haul of more than $900,000 and argued that “he’s been a very bipartisan legislator, someone who’s been working hard to serve the district.”

So far, Jones and Gereghty are waving off concerns that the primary might be bruising. 

“I don’t think it needs to be ‘brutal,’ like some of the articles I’ve seen have characterized it. I think that’s silly and self-defeating,” Gereghty said. 

Jones projected confidence, saying that while he wanted to avoid a contentious primary, the contest “would have to be competitive in order to be contentious. I look forward to seeing how this primary plays out and whether there will be a primary ultimately.”

Democratic groups, meanwhile, are turning their sights to Lawler early to make their case against the first-term GOP lawmaker.

“Mike Lawler has blatantly embraced extreme far-right priorities that New Yorkers reject, so it’s no wonder he has quickly become one of the most vulnerable members of Congress. Hudson Valley voters are eager for better representation, and the DCCC is already working to help them send Rep. Lawler packing next November,” DCCC spokeswoman Nebeyatt Betre said in a statement. 

Updated: 8:41 a.m.