Can the Democratic Party’s Left Flank Win in 2018? This Illinois Primary Could Be a Bellwether

Progressive challenger Marie Newman is hoping to shock the political establishment by unseating House Rep. Dan Lipinski, a conservative Democrat and longtime incumbent.

Daniel Moattar

Newman is running against Dan Lipinski in Illinois's 3rd Congressional District. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call / Marie Newman Facebook)

One of the most closely watched Democratic primary races of 2018 is taking place in Illinois’s 3rd Congressional District, an increasingly diverse patch of Chicago’s Southwest Side and surrounding suburbs.

“If we do turn it over,” Newman says, “I think we can get Medicare for All. I think we can get a comprehensive workers’ bill through.”

For over 25 years, the district has been represented by the Lipinski family — but that could be about to change. Chicagoland businesswoman Marie Newman is mounting an increasingly formidable challenge to Rep. Dan Lipinski, a seven-term incumbent who has made a name for himself as one of the most conservative-leaning Democrats in Congress. Lipinski is a staunch opponent of abortion rights who refuses to back a $15 minimum wage and has voted against LGBT rights, the DREAM Act and Obamacare.

Lipinski, who identifies Ronald Reagan as a political hero, votes against his party nearly twice as often as the average Democrat. In recent years, he’s received harsh ratings from civil liberties, civil rights, education, women’s rights, immigrant rights, pro-environment, anti-war and LGBT organizations. He also has a 100 percent rating from the anti-abortion National Right to Life committee. In 2012, Lipinski even refused to endorse Barack Obama for reelection.

Newman is running as a progressive alternative. A supporter of Medicare for All and the Fight for 15, she’s racked up a string of endorsements from left-leaning organizations including NARAL Pro-Choice America, Democracy for America, MoveOn​.org and Our Revolution, an official organizational offshoot of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign.

Newman has also received the support of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), who recently headlined a Chicago fundraiser for Newman’s campaign. And Newman has been endorsed by two of Lipinski’s House colleagues, Representatives Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL-4) and Jan Schakowsky (D-IL-9).

That tells you, frankly, how terrible he is on the issues,” Newman says by phone from her home in La Grange, Ill. Not just my polls, but many polls, identify that seven out of 10 people in the district are pro-choice. About 75 percent are for healthcare for all or Medicare for All. The district has changed dramatically since Mr. Lipinski took office — even though it was a solidly blue district already.”

The 3rd District has leaned Democratic for decades — and today, it is home to a growing base of Latino and Muslim voters, a different set of Democrats from the old Daley diehards. In the decade since Lipinski took office, the district’s population has gone from about one-quarter Latino to one-third, despite redistricting that transferred many Latino voters to Gutiérrez’s adjacent 4th District. In the 2016 presidential primary, Bernie Sanders won the 3rd district by roughly 8 points, a vote Newman sees as a sign of change.

An internal poll conducted by the Newman campaign in January shows the challenger actually leading Lipinski by five points, when voters are made aware of the incumbent’s conservative policy positions and views.

Change doesn’t always come easy to Chicago-area Democrats, and Lipinski is a case in point. He succeeded his father, 11-term representative Bill Lipinski, who stepped down days after winning the Democratic primary in 2004 and tagged in his son to replace him.

The elder Lipinski co-sponsored the Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act, consistently voted against abortion rights, and took a conservative tack on issues ranging from restricting immigration to enabling stop-and-frisk policies.

Allegations of nepotism and other wrongdoing didn’t stop the younger Lipinski from picking up where his father left off, using his safe seat to oppose abortion rights, immigrant protections and gay marriage.

Bill Lipinski, a Chicago political heavyweight, had strong relationships with Washington and Illinois power brokers — including the powerful Daley and Madigan families. Those connections haven’t hurt his son, who picked up many of Bill’s richest backers, including local billionaires such as members of the Crown Family and Jerry Reinsdorf, a prominent donor to Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner.

Dan Lipinski is also a co-chair of the Blue Dog Coalition, the organization representing the Democratic Party’s conservative wing. While many Blue Dogs represent swing districts, Lipinski stands out as a conservative Democrat representing a solidly blue urban area who has never faced a strong GOP threat or been forced to run a competitive general election race.

Like many conservative-to-moderate Illinois Democrats, Lipinski has also received support from establishment organized labor. The Illinois AFL-CIO is a Lipinski ally. And about a fifth of his campaign funds come from skilled-trade unions.

Newman sees this as a prime opportunity to replace Lipinski with a progressive, despite the fact that she’s a political newcomer who trails her opponent financially. Newman’s campaign has raised just over half a million dollars, a strong showing for a challenger but barely a third of what Lipinski has on hand.

If she does win, Newman has a list of priorities ready to go. Medicare for All, then workers’ and working families’ issues,” she says, not just having $15 an hour, but paid leave, parental and sick leave — advancing everybody’s rights around immigration, moving on to LGBTQ rights, women’s rights and women’s healthcare.”

Newman also has the support of National Nurses United (NNU), a progressive union that backed Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign. NNU, which coordinates its Chicagoland canvassing through the community organization Reclaim Chicago, is a vocal supporter of single-payer campaigns.

We see real potential in Marie Newman,” says Jan Rodolfo, NNU’s Midwest director. She really believes in the public sector and the common good. We also feel it’s important to send a message to incumbents that if they fail to act as progressives, there’s consequences for them electorally.”

As for Lipinski, Rodolfo says, He’s just not responsive to his constituency. We don’t see him working with his constituents to build a movement to make their lives better.”

Newman has also received the endorsement of other unions in the state including the SEIU State Council and the Illinois Federation of Teachers.

But is Newman, a marketing consultant with no record in office, the best contender to carry the progressive banner? Plenty of candidates have run from the left only to govern from the center, especially those without long experience in office. And once in office, House members aren’t always easy to hold to account.

Rodolfo says that Newman is committed to co-govern” with Reclaim Chicago and NNU, and while you can’t physically force somebody to be in a room if they break that promise, we can mobilize our base to put significant pressure on her. At the end of the day, I believe that she’ll care what her constituents think.”

While she has self-financed her campaign to the tune of $75,000, Newman points to her relatively small donations (around $50 on average) as evidence that her campaign and candidacy are being fueled by grassroots support from constituents in her district. 

For his part, Lipinski is sitting on $1.65 million for the 2018 race. Some of his top campaign contributors include defense contractors Northrop Grumman, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin. With a war chest six times bigger than Newman’s, Lipinski has no need to self-finance.

And he appears to have at least one powerful group in his corner: The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC). The DCCC hasn’t officially taken a stance in the race, or responded to inquiries about whether it will continue to back Lipinski. But the organization has cozied up to Lipinski’s Blue Dog Coalition since the 2016 elections. The DCCC sees the Blue Dogs as the key to retaking Congress in 2018 — and endorsing Lipinski’s challenger could seriously hurt that relationship.

The DCCC has made it clear that the anti-abortion views held by some Blue Dogs aren’t a deal breaker, and has accused Blue Dog opponents of setting purity tests” by holding out for progressives. DCCC chairman Ben Ray Luján has called the caucus incredible partners.”

When it comes to the DCCC, Newman says she’s not at all” surprised at the lack of support. If you’re in a family,” she says, and a distant neighbor’s friend of a friend wants to be in the family, do you just get to be in the family? No. Those organizations, of course they’re going to protect their family.” If she wins the primary, Newman will likely be expected to work with the DCCC on fundraising and other efforts.

With a post-Trump upswing in progressive primary challenges, there’s been more public debate about the Democratic establishment, including the DCCC, and its sometimes controversial choices on which candidates to support. At the end of the day, though, the question for voters will be whether Lipinski fits the district — and whether Newman would fit it better.

Lipinski has run hard negative campaigns against past primary opponents such as Mark Pera, then a Cook County Assistant State’s Attorney, who challenged Lipinski in 2008.

That year, a flyer funded in part by the Lipinski campaign and distributed across the district caricatured Pera as a carpetbagger who didn’t represent the district’s working-class values. This time around, Lipinski is calling his opposition a Tea Party of the Left.”

A decade ago, the Tea Party injected primary panic into safe GOP districts, forcing out blindsided incumbents or pushing sitting representatives far to the right. For activists and organizers who want to drag Democrats left, the upcoming primary elections will serve as an important test.

Victories for candidates like Newman, publicly committed to progressive platforms, will point to the growing power of the Democratic Party’s left flank. And the progressive groups backing Newman’s candidacy hope that such victories will help win back control of Congress from Republicans in November.

If we do turn it over,” Newman says, I think we can get Medicare for All. I think we can get a comprehensive workers’ bill through.”

If Newman pulls off a win on March 20, it will be the clearest indication yet that a progressive groundswell is translating into electoral victories. In such a solidly Democratic district, Newman would be all but assured to win the House seat in November. She’s hoping to be part of a big freshman class. 

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