Late last month, a group of five national progressive organizations announced their support for Marie Newman, a Democrat running for Congress in Illinois. Nothing unusual there: Newman is a down-the-line progressive on everything from economic populism, immigration, LGBT rights, gun violence, and a woman’s right to choose.
What made the move so unusual is that there is already a Democrat safely in the seat.
In a year defined by fierce resistance to President Donald Trump, the move marked the most aggressive challenge to a sitting Democrat this cycle, because it wasn’t organized by groups that have been set up specifically to challenge Democrats from the left, but rather by ones that often support those who’ve already been elected, while training their fire instead on Republicans.
The groups broadly come from the activist wing of the party that is comfortable working with establishment Democrats, if at occasionally an arms-length distance: NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Human Rights Campaign, MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. The five joined Daily Kos, which had previously endorsed Newman.
As a signal of how significant the move was, take note of who did not join in the endorsement: Planned Parenthood, EMILY’s List, or organized labor.
The latter absence is not hard to explain, as Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., much like his father before him, has long commanded the loyalty of unions in the district, who are closely tied to the party machinery, a machine that can still move a lot of ground in the state. “We’ve been gunning for Lipinski for something like 10 years now, and until organized labor abandons him, it’s always an uphill slog. But he certainly has no business being a Democrat and would love to see Newman catch fire,” Markos Moulitsas, head of Daily Kos, told The Intercept.
But for Planned Parenthood and EMILY’s List, the abstention is a window into the power of incumbency and the influence of the national Democratic Party.
The letter “D” might come after Lipinski’s name, but he doesn’t vote like a Democrat in 2017. Anti-choice, skeptical of LGBT rights, and often on the side of anti-immigrant efforts, Lipinski’s record is far out of step with his district, which went for Bernie Sanders by roughly eight points in the Democratic primary, and to Hillary Clinton by about 16 points in the 2016 general election.
On paper, there is no question which candidate EMILY’s List or Planned Parenthood would be supporting in a straight-up race between a pro-choice, progressive woman and an anti-choice, conservative man. Newman knows the 3rd District well; she was raised in Palos Park, attended Carl Sandburg High School, and currently resides in La Grange with her husband and two children. She comes from a corporate background and made her career as a marketing professional, but she became a rights advocate and formed a nationwide coalition of anti-bullying nonprofits after her child, who is transgender, was bullied at school. More recently, Newman met with state and federal lawmakers to discuss gun control, as part of her work with Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
EMILY’s List is specifically dedicated to electing pro-choice women and didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment on its decision not to back Newman. Erica Sackin, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood Action Fund, said that the organization has yet to make decisions on 2018 elections, but did not look fondly on the record of Lipinski. “It’s essential to elect people who will be champions for reproductive health and rights,” she said in a statement. “We’ve seen over the years that Rep. Dan Lipinski has not been a champion for women or women’s rights, and in fact has only a 23 percent voting record rating from the Planned Parenthood Action Fund.”
But the race is not fought on paper, but rather in the world in which taking on the establishment and losing can come with payback. “I’d welcome their support,” Newman told The Intercept.
Just how dramatic those consequences would be for EMILY’s List is not obvious, however. The fact that NARAL and HRC, which often work closely with establishment Democrats, are willing to challenge Lipinski openly suggests that party leadership is not going to war to defend Lipinski, who couples his conservative politics with an abrasive personality. If Lipinski loses his primary, the party is no worse off, as Newman would easily win the general election.
The calculation for Planned Parenthood is different, as the Illinois machine controls some of the purse strings that keeps the organization funded. And that machine has been good in Illinois on abortion rights. In a move that was seen as a way to box in Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner, Democratic state House Speaker Mike Madigan pushed the most progressive pro-choice bill in the country on to the governor’s desk. If he signed it, he’d get a primary from the right, and if he vetoed it, Democrats would use it to crush him. He signed it and got a primary.
Madigan was a longtime ally of Lipinski’s father and is tight with the younger Lipinski, as well, whose career he is partly responsible for. Lipinski became a member of Congress in 2005, when he inherited his father Bill Lipinski’s public service career. He is staunchly opposed to providing federal funding for abortions and has continuously voted against including abortion coverage in qualified health care plans. This was partly the reason why he was the only Illinois Democrat who voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010, even though he is currently one of Obamacare’s public defenders. Most recently, he supported a bill that would criminalize abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
“Congressman Lipinski is way out of touch with the values of his district. He used his position in Congress to advance an anti-choice, anti-LGBT, anti-immigrant agenda,” said James Owen, NARAL states communications director.
If a member of Congress is out of step with his district, one way to remedy it is to change the district. In the 2010 redistricting, controlled by the Illinois machine, Lipinski swapped some of his voters out for new ones. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, a fellow Illinois Democrat, watched it happen. “All of a sudden, one day I woke up and I saw the 2011 map that I was going to run in 2012 under, and I said, ‘Whoa! What happened to Bucktown? Wicker Park? What happened to all my inner-city folks? All of a sudden I have cul-de-sacs, I have Brookfield Zoo, I have southern suburbs. Doesn’t sound like part of a Hispanic congressional district, right?” Gutiérrez said. “But I guess the question is, why did he jettison them?”
The answer is simple: to make his district more conservative and fend off a primary challenge from the left. In a redistricting that affected a number of different members of Congress, Lipinski gave up white, lefty enclaves like Brookfield and Riverside in exchange for more conservative white voters. “He gerrymandered it to suit his very far-right, radical needs,” is how Newman put it.
Whether Newman can pull it off will likely depend not just on national progressive groups and the power of the local machine, but in how active the local immigrant rights community decides to get.
Lipinski has a deplorable record on the issue, in a community dominated by immigrants both recent — a third of the district is Latino — and less recent, like those from Poland. While Lipinski has major labor groups locked down, the Hispanic American Labor Council has gotten behind Newman. Gutiérrez, who represents the 4th District in Illinois and is outspoken on immigration issues, told The Intercept he’s “definitely going to sit down with the challenger.”
“Lipinski on a whole array of issues is outside the mainstream of the Democratic Party,” he said.
On immigration, Lipinski has voted yes to building a fence along the Mexican border and voted against the DREAM Act in 2010. But then in July, he co-sponsored a bill that would protect the recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program from deportation.
Lipinski voted against government recognition of same-sex marriage and was the only Democrat to co-sponsor legislation that would have allowed businesses to discriminate against LGBT people based on their religious beliefs.
Lipinski hasn’t responded to The Intercept’s interview requests but told The Hill that his voting record is “very much in line” with his district. The suburbs in the southwest side of Chicago tend to vote conservative, according to Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago and former Chicago alderman.
In March, frustrated constituents organized a town hall meeting and aired their grievances at a cardboard cutout of Lipinski. Newman told The Intercept that without polling or surveying his constituents, Lipinski “has no idea what his district wants.”
The Illinois primary race is surfacing as “a battle for the soul of the Democratic party,” according to Kate Sweeney, press secretary of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
“There is this belief that the way forward for the Democratic Party runs through going moderate, or supporting corporate issues, or doing for Republicans more than you do for Democrats. It’s a broken translation. It’s false. We saw in Virginia just a month ago that you can engage a whole new generation of voters by really putting economic populism at the center of your campaigns,” she said.
But going against Lipinski will be an uphill battle for Newman. Lipinski’s campaign has $1.5 million cash on hand, to Newman’s $97,600. The odds are also in his favor: Incumbents have a 90 percent re-election rate.
Newman said she has spoken with 40 or 50 unions and that while some unions will continue backing Lipinski, “ultimately some of them will end positively with me.” Even though Newman seems like a more logical candidate for labor unions, they wouldn’t want Lipinski as an opponent, because of his powerful position in Congress, particularly on transportation issues.
Newman told The Intercept she has received support and mentorship from individuals within the Democratic Party, but no financial support from the party as a whole. Both Lipinski’s father and son were supported by the Chicago Democratic machine, which puts in precinct workers who go door to door and make sure Democratic voters show up and elect their chosen candidate. It’s in the Illinois Democratic establishment’s interest to support Lipinski, because his congressional district controls a lot of the southwest side wards that Rahm Emanuel would need to secure another term as mayor.
When asked if there might be repercussions to coming out against the establishment-backed Democrat, Neil Sroka of Democracy for America said he doubted it. “I think if the national Democrats are smart, they’ll stay the hell away from this race, because few representatives in Congress more poorly reflect where the Democrats are right now than Dan Lipinski,” he said.
Newman added an additional reason that progressive groups might want to get behind her: she plans to win. “Never bet against Marie Newman,” she said. “Don’t do it.”
Update: Dec. 12, 2017
This story was updated to include comment from Planned Parenthood Action Fund.