A race that was considered a bellwether of the Democratic Party’s future, the contest between U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski and Marie Newman for the Democratic nomination to represent Illinois’s 3rd Congressional District, went, fittingly, late into the night without a clear winner.
Finally, with 96 percent of the precincts counted by early Wednesday, The Associated Press called the race for Lipinski, who had a lead of about 1,600 votes out of the roughly 90,000 that were cast.
On Tuesday morning, Politico summed up Washington’s view of the heated primary in a story with the subhead, “Is there still room in the Democratic Party for a Blue Dog who opposes abortion rights?“
The race was indeed a signal of where the party is headed, but the question Politico posed is the wrong one for this particular district. It’s such a comfortably Democratic seat that Lipinski didn’t face an opponent in the 2016 general election. Now that he’s won the primary, he’ll face a fringe candidate with a neo-Nazi past in the 2018 general. Democrat Hillary Clinton easily carried the district two years ago, and Bernie Sanders beat Clinton in the primary there.
Questions about the future of the party gained new momentum after Conor Lamb’s upset victory in last week’s special election, which took place in a deeply conservative western Pennsylvania district; centrist Democrats argued that his win demonstrated that the true path was through moderation. They cited Lamb’s embrace of gun culture; his personal, but not political, opposition to abortion; and his unwillingness to back single-payer health care. But the lesson only goes so far: Even though Lamb ran in a far more conservative district than did Lipinski, the former ran a far more progressive campaign — and still won.
So a more precise question might be: Is there still room in a solidly Democratic district for a Blue Dog who opposes abortion rights, LGBTQ rights, immigrants’ rights, a $15 minimum wage, and who voted against the Affordable Care Act?
And the answer, at least in Illinois’s 3rd District, is barely — for now.
The race also answered a different question, one that is perhaps more relevant to the future of the party: Can the progressive Democrats mount a powerful enough challenge to entrenched, well-funded incumbents that they can threaten the status quo?
Lipinski may have held on, but he got the kind of political scare that no incumbent wants.
The answer to that question, clearly, is yes. Lipinski held on, but he got the kind of political scare that no incumbent wants. Newman, taking the stage at her election night party at Marz Taproom in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, declined to concede the race, but said that whatever happens, voters had shocked Lipinski into more progressive positions. “No matter what happens tomorrow, we have moved him on immigration, we have moved him on healthcare. I scared the crap out of him on $12 vs. $15” — a reference to their debate over the minimum wage. She continued, “There’s many things we can move him on more, so let’s be clear. The fight is not over. It’s not done.”
Just how present that threat was became clear about two hours after the polls closed, as vote counts showed Newman, who’d been trailing by two to three points all night, surging ahead. At Marz Taproom, volunteers and staffers hugged each other, with one screaming, “I can’t believe this is happening!”
Newman’s slight lead lasted only a few minutes — apparently the result of a tabulation error — before Lipinski crawled back on top for the rest of the night.
If Newman decides to run in 2020, she’d be the favorite in the race. This cycle, an actual neo-Nazi ran unopposed in the GOP primary in the same district. Because Illinois has an open primary system, Republican voters could have chosen to vote in the Democratic primary and back Lipinski. (The irony of a Sanders-backed candidate losing thanks to crossover votes in an open primary was not lost on Twitter.)
Sophia Olazaba, a field manager for the Newman campaign, said she doesn’t doubt that some Republican voters crossed over. “Even when we were canvassing, a lot of homes had both Jeanne Ives and Dan Lipinski signs, so those people could have crossed over,” she said, referring to the GOP gubernatorial candidate whose entire campaign was premised on her opposition to legal abortion.
Another volunteer, Sabrina Ithal, also from the 3rd District, mentioned that the open primary format could have actually worked in their favor: “I converted quite a few Republicans who voted Democrat for the first time in 30 to 40 years today.”
The Susan B. Anthony List, a group that opposes legal abortion, made re-electing Lipinski a major priority of theirs, dumping big money into the race and working the ground to get out the anti-abortion vote on his behalf.
Volunteers at the election party said that a key challenge during the campaign was familiarizing voters with Lipinski’s voting record — a task they eventually accomplished. “Our main opponent wasn’t Dan Lipinski, it was the fact that Dan Lipinski’s record had been hidden so long,” said Travis Ballie, an associate field coordinator for NARAL Pro-Choice America. Knocking on doors in the 3rd District, Ballie said he encountered two categories of people. “The first were the folks who were well aware of his record and had been waiting for someone to challenge him for years. The second were the folks who, frankly, did not know.”
Ithal echoed this: “People were shocked. Who sits around saying, ‘Gee, I wonder how Lipinski votes on every issue’?”
Dan’s father Bill Lipinski, an old-school machine politician, was elected to Congress in 1982 and retired right after the 2004 primary, replacing his name with his son’s on the general election ballot, so that he waltzed into Congress with no competition. Anyone born in the district after the early 1960s has only known a Lipinski on on the congressional ballot, which makes his margin of victory in Chicago understandable. In 2011, as state Democrats redrew district boundaries, Lipinski made his own more conservative, in order to reflect his politics. But his new constituents were less familiar with him, and he was still stuck with some of the more liberal suburbs, which went for Newman on Tuesday.
“Our main opponent wasn’t Dan Lipinski, it was the fact that Dan Lipinski’s record had been hidden so long.”
The who and how of the insurgency that nearly toppled Lipinski was not a version of the Bernie vs. Hillary frame that is popular in the press, so it’s worth a closer look. The following account of the campaign is based on interviews with people involved throughout the course of the effort, which burst into public view in November, when Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., announced her support for Newman. Less than two weeks later, five progressive groups declared they’d be getting behind her, too.
The groups were NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Human Rights Campaign, MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. They joined Daily Kos, which had already endorsed Newman and has been taking shots at Lipinski for years.
MoveOn, Democracy for America, and the PCCC had little to lose politically by targeting an incumbent Democrat. They are not built to be a part of the machinery of the Democratic Party; in fact , they are constantly working to pull it in a more progressive direction. NARAL and HRC, however, were both taking a risk, knowing that their support of a challenge to a sitting Democrat could infuriate allies back in Washington.
The decision was made easier, though, by the fact that Newman, while characterized in the press as a Sanders-like lefty, is actually much closer on the political spectrum to the Democratic establishment than Lipinski is.
Even before she declared her candidacy, Newman met with mothers in Chicago who had lost their kids to violence.
Staffers and volunteers for the Newman campaign cited a whole host of different reasons for their involvement: Lipinski’s voting record on LGBTQ and women’s issues, his opposition to a $15 minimum wage, or simply that he didn’t seem to care about the issues that affected their communities. Olazaba, the field manager for the Newman campaign, grew up in Back of the Yards, a majority Hispanic neighborhood in the 3rd District. “Back of the Yards has just been ignored. I never saw him come to the Mexican [Independence] Day parade or any other local events,” she said, contrasting Lipinski with Newman, who she said met with mothers in the neighborhood who had lost their kids to violence even before she declared her candidacy.
NARAL President Ilyse Hogue said that Lipinski’s vote against the DREAM Act and past opposition to immigrants’ rights resonated. “People started to have a visceral sense that their security was threatened. So when they learn that he didn’t have their back, that was devastating,” she said.
Personality wound up working to the progressive groups’ advantage: Lipinski had made few friends among his colleagues and chafed many as unpleasant, a factor that has more political implications than one might assume. As a sign of how little support he had in Washington, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee did not intervene in the race, despite its involvement in several Democratic primaries across the country. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s involvement was limited to an affirmative response when asked once by Washington Examiner if she was supporting Lipinski. Even two members of Congress from Chicago, Democratic Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Luis Gutierrez, broke with Lipinski and endorsed Newman. (When Newman declined to concede, she said it was partly to stick it to Lipinski: “I would like Mr. Lipinski to have a very painful evening.”)
But while NARAL and HRC were willing to gamble, other elements of the party structure were not on board at first. Despite Lipinski’s hostile record on reproductive rights — he regularly spoke at the March For Life in Washington — EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood initially stayed out, while organized labor either endorsed Lipinski or remained neutral.
It wasn’t that the groups wanted Lipinski to win, but that, according to sources familiar with the situation, they expected him to win no matter what they did, so they didn’t want to antagonize him and burn capital — neither political nor financial.
But as Newman’s campaign gathered momentum, there began to appear signs that Lipinski could truly lose. He agreed to a debate of sorts, appearing with Newman in front of the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board in January; and, for the first time since he began speaking, he skipped the March For Life, despite having been billed as a 2018 speaker.
In front of the Sun-Times, Lipinski rejected a key union priority; “Union-Backed Democratic Congressman Rejects $15 Minimum Wage,” The Intercept wrote at the time. That was enough for the Service Employees International Union to pull the trigger and endorse Newman. The Illinois Federation of Teachers joined in, breaking Lipinski’s labor wall that had held since his ascension to Congress in 2004.
That domino brought EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood into the race by early February, and from there it was a sprint to the March 20 primary.
Often with endorsements, groups make an announcement, wish the candidate the best, and move on to the next race. If they’re feeling particularly charitable, they might help organize a fundraiser.
The progressive groups backing Newman, however, got serious. NARAL organized the groups into a coalition, called Citizens for a Better Illinois, that raised and spent more than $1.6 million to go after Lipinski, evening out her cash disadvantage. To counter it, Chicago-area megadonors pumped close to $1 million into the race to bolster Lipinski. They used the group No Labels, which backs pro-corporate centrists in both parties, as a front.
The pro-Newman coalition spent, according to its own tabulations, $350,000 on mail, $600,000 on cable ads, $280,000 on broadcast TV, $275,000 on digital advertising, and $130,000 on a Latino voter turnout program. It’s the kind of campaign that can — and almost did — win. The question going forward will be how scalable it is nationally.
Hogue, echoing what the campaign volunteers said, told The Intercept that the challenge in knocking off an incumbent is in penetrating the consciousness of a community by letting them know who their congressperson really is and who the challenger is. “What we always knew is that if voters knew his record, they were going to move,” she said. “The voters in this district had no idea how out of step he was, and we experienced a lot of anger from them when they found out. In a district that’s been changing more and more to resemble the rest of America, when they heard about Marie, it was not a tough sell.”
Outside progressives groups don’t need to offer that kind of support in every local district to have an impact, though. After all, the National Rifle Association and American Israel Public Affairs Committee, two of the most feared organizations in Washington, built their power not by electing lots of candidates, but by beating just a few — very loudly.
Lipinski may have escaped that fate for now, but he’s a marked man. “I’d work again tomorrow” if Newman makes another run against Lipinski, said Patti Ernst, a Newman volunteer. “And that’s how everyone in this room is.”
Teresa Manring contributed reporting from Chicago.
Update: March 21, 2018, 8:39 a.m.
This story has been updated with the results of the election: Early on Wednesday, Dan Lipinski was declared the winner.