CHICAGO — The ascendant Democratic left may have found the opening it needs to finally dislodge one of the party’s few anti-abortion House members in next month's Illinois primary.
The effort to defeat Rep. Dan Lipinski, who represents part of Chicago and its southwest suburbs, is drawing presidential contenders and the state’s top Democratic leaders. And if liberals succeed in ousting the self-proclaimed moderate, it would leave just two House Democrats who oppose abortion rights.
Lipinski has been targeted by the left before, only to dust himself off and power though an eighth term. But liberals are putting the squeeze on him this election cycle, emboldened by intra-party victories by challengers like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) two years ago, and a progressive wing enraged by Donald Trump.
Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have endorsed Lipinski's Democratic opponent, Marie Newman, a businesswoman and former marketing consultant who came within 2,200 votes of defeating Lipinski in 2018. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, a Democrat, recently threw her support to Newman saying "Lipinski is on the wrong side of history." Fellow House Democrats, including members of the Illinois delegation, have joined the pile-on too.
"The credibility she has built up and whatever changes in the past two years demographically in the district give her a better shot,” Don Rose, a veteran Chicago political consultant who has advised elected Illinois Democrats for more than two decades, said of Newman.
The March 17 primary will test Lipinski’s intimacy with his district and Newman's persistence. And it will also measure the staying power of organizations like the Justice Democrats, which helped Ocasio-Cortez oust an establishment figure. The group endorsed seven candidates this cycle, including Newman, who launched primaries against sitting Democrats like Reps. Henry Cuellar in Texas and Eliot Engel in New York. But the Lipinski-Newman rematch — where previous data exists and the incumbent conflicts with the party — should be one of their easiest wins.
Lipinski, who has the support of numerous unions, suburban mayors, and some female elected officials in his district, insists he’s representing the majority of his constituents, many who were familiar with his father's 22-year tenure in the seat. Abortion rights “just doesn’t come up that often,” he told POLITICO, saying instead the media and Newman are the ones eager to single out the issue.
“Put aside what anyone thinks [about abortion],” Lipinski said in the interview. “It’s bad for the party that we do not want anyone who’s pro-life in the party. One of three Democratic voters say they are pro-life. It’s a dangerous message for the party to send that to be pro-life you aren’t welcome in the party.”
Lipinski has long leaned on his Catholic faith as a reason for his opposition to abortion rights. And Newman is brandishing her Catholic bona fides in an ad released earlier this month highlighting her upbringing — noting where she was born and where she was baptized — while emphasizing health care and wages.
Besides better name recognition two years later, a half-dozen Chicago-area political analysts, consultants and Democratic insiders say Newman will likely benefit from a presidential primary process that's driving a large, more progressive group of voters to the polls. These observers say Lipinski’s operation has proven it can deploy a steady stream of supporters each election cycle but his political machine of labor unions and moderate voters can get steamrolled in presidential years.
“Lipinski is more prepared for this race unlike the last one. But it’s a presidential year and he can be in trouble because so many Democrats will come out to vote and more will likely sway towards Newman," said Becky Carroll, a Democratic strategist who worked on Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign.
One of the big unknowns for a race where the margins were so narrow in 2018 is the entry of two lesser-known Democrats, Rush Darwish and Charles Hughes, who both support abortion rights and could siphon votes from Newman. But Newman told POLITICO she’s improved her ground game and built her base to accommodate the new pressures of this year's campaign. "Awareness is higher" about her and Lipinski's positions, she said, arguing that a big voter turnout would break in her favor. She's also banking on support from Indivisible Chicago, a progressive get-out-the-vote group that helped freshmen Illinois Reps. Lauren Underwood and Sean Casten flip their districts two years ago.
Perhaps the biggest saving grace for Lipinski's 2020 reelection effort was a decision by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee not to hire companies working for primary challengers, cutting off substantial resources to candidates like Newman.
However, the move only emboldened progressives, who have stepped up their own anti-Lipinski campaign. Amid a slew of new anti-abortion laws passed in predominantly Republican states last spring, women's organizations and activist groups pressured DCCC chairwoman Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.) to back out of a fundraiser for the congressman — a friend who helped whip support for her DCCC job.
Lipinski, and Reps. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) and Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) are the last three anti-abortion Democrats left in the House. But Cuellar and Peterson represent conservative, mostly rural areas, where the broader Democratic message might not appeal. So, what's made Lipinski a marked man is the combination of how openly and actively he defies a core principle of the party while holding a left-leaning district — where the November election is rarely competitive — in a deep-blue state. He’s also been out of step with his party on issues related to the LGBTQ community, including his initial opposition to same-sex marriage, although he supported repealing "don't ask, don't tell."
His views on social issues aren't aligning with the Democratic Party's big-tent coalition, which is "built more now on the strength of suburban women and people of color and less on the votes of rural white working-class men" that once defined Lipinski's district, said Lanae Erickson, an executive vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank. "That means we still need lots of moderate candidates, but the ones who prevail will likely be a different breed than the old Blue Dog social conservatives."
Lipinski frequents rallies against abortion rights and, along with Peterson, was among just two Democrats to join Republicans earlier this year in calling on the Supreme Court to consider overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark decision granting a constitutional right to an abortion in the United States.
His signing on with Republicans “was a thumb in the eye" to Democrats who are sympathetic to Lipinski's beliefs but don't see the need to embrace his anti-Roe efforts, said Rose, the Chicago consultant.
But Lipinski counters by that isolating abortion critics within the Democratic Party “plays right into the hands” of Trump. “That was a factor in President Trump getting elected in the first place. It’s frustrating for me personally for my position in the party but I think it’s bad for the Democratic Party to be sending that message.”
Still, while he's conservative, Lipinski hasn’t vowed allegiance to President Donald Trump or switched parties like Democrat-turned-Republican New Jersey Rep. Jeff Van Drew. And though he didn’t endorse fellow Illinoisan Barack Obama for a second term, Lipinski very much sees himself as a Democrat. He says his views fit with the Democratic ideals of government protecting constituents, in this case, “babies in the womb.”
Lipinski says his blue-collar constituents want to talk about health care. And though he has pivoted to support Obamacare after initially voting against it, he is unmoved by his party’s progressive shift on abortion rights.
Still, he recognizes the pressure to replace him with a more liberal Democrat is mounting and has ramped up his campaign operation.
“We’re better organized. We’ve had people out canvassing for the past three or four weeks, so we have a good ground game. And we have a much more active social media presence than we did two years ago,” he said.