Mark Pera is not one to back down from a challenge. The son of a steelworker, Pera toiled in Northwest Indiana’s mills to put himself through college and law school. As a Cook County assistant state’s attorney, he worked on environmental criminal prosecution and public utility regulation, diligently fighting special interests. Now the broad-shouldered, 52-year-old father of four is setting his sights on the 2008 Democratic primary in Illinois’ 3rd congressional district, which encompasses southwest Chicago and nearby suburbs. By the looks of it, he’s not messing around. Five full-timers staff his campaign headquarters, a two-story brick house outfitted with stickers and schedules. In August, Pera took a leave of absence from his job to run full time. He also took out a home equity loan to finance portions of the campaign. His favorite phrase? “We’re committed to winning this race.”
But Democratic incumbent Dan Lipinski stands in his way. Lipinski took control of the seat after his father Bill, the district’s representative for 22 years, retired abruptly in 2004 after winning the party’s primary. With no candidate to fill his seat in the general election, the elder Lipinski suggested his son take a stab at politics. State party leaders acquiesced, giving the younger Lipinski the nomination – and subsequent victory – without a primary campaign.
Since slipping into office, the younger Lipinski has frustrated progressive constituents with a less-than-liberal voting record. He is opposed to stem cell research and a woman’s right to choose, earning him a zero-percent score from Planned Parenthood and NARAL. His ACLU rating is one of the lowest for any Democrat outside of the South, partly because of his support for the Protect America Act, an update to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act that the ACLU says “allows for massive, untargeted collection of international communications without court order or meaningful oversight by either Congress or the courts.” Lipinski has not done much to end the war in Iraq either, voting with 85 other Democrats to pass an emergency supplemental appropriations bill that lacked a withdrawal deadline.
Lipinski’s backers contend that his voting record aligns with his district’s socially conservative residents. But evidence suggests the district is no longer the Reagan-Democrat hotbed of his father’s time. John Kerry won 59 percent of the vote in 2004, and an influx of Latinos, who now make up 20 percent of the district’s population, has further solidified the seat as a Democratic stronghold. “It’s a lot more progressive than people realize,” says Larry Handlin, who has been blogging about Illinois politics at ArchPundit since 2002.
The Pera-Lipinski race could serve as a prototype for a forgotten – yet vital – strategy available to progressive activists: the primary challenge. While the Christian Right, the Club for Growth and other right-wingers have shifted the GOP to the right by running candidates against moderate Republicans for decades, the left hasn’t built the kind of party-within-party apparatus necessary in two-party politics.
Let’s get ready to rumble
Why don’t the donkeys grapple with each other? Some partisans are afraid that challenging incumbents could risk forfeiting seats to Republicans, especially in conservative-leaning locales. And incumbents, in an effort to retain their jobs, characterize primary opponents as unworthy of media and donor attention, when in reality they are citizens participating in a standard democratic process. Even the reliably progressive Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D‑Hawaii) told Congressional Quarterly this fall that primary pressure from the left amounted to a “recapitulation of the Inquisition.”
From the challenger’s standpoint, taking on an incumbent requires considerable chutzpah. Often without institutional backing and little name recognition, these candidates are likely to encounter heartache, not triumph.
“The hardest thing to do in this political system is to run for office,” says Matt Stoller, a D.C.-based political activist and consultant who blogs at the new strategy website OpenLeft. “It’s lonely … you have no income, very little sleep, a terrible diet and little family time.”
Given the difficulty of mounting primary challenges, combined with gerrymandered districts and the plentiful resources incumbents have at their disposal – thanks to political action committee (PAC) directors, party committees and name recognition – it’s not surprising that the incumbent re-election rate was 93.5 percent in 2006, even in an election that many analysts dubbed “a watershed.” In 2004, that rate was 98 percent.
Yet the anti-primary tide may finally be turning. OpenLeft’s “Bush Dog” campaign typifies the growing interest in challenging conservative Democrats. Stoller and his blogging cohort Chris Bowers coined the term, playing on the conservative Democrats’ Blue Dog Caucus in Congress. The campaign identifies Bush Dogs as Democrats who capitulated both on the Iraq War vote in May and the vote to allow warrantless wiretapping powers, thereby enabling destructive White House policies at two crucial junctures.
According to OpenLeft, 40 members of Congress qualify as Bush Dogs – half of whom are white men from the South. Initially, Stoller and Bowers solicited activists for online profiles of Bush Dogs, then publicized their records and lobbied these lawmakers to change certain objectionable stances. The goal now, however, is to promote as many homegrown primary challenges to those 40 Bush Dogs as possible.
In addition to Illinois’ Lipinski, party activists have pledged to take on Washington’s Rep. Brian Baird unless he changes his position on Iraq. Georgia’s Rep. Jim Marshall is facing two challengers, including Robert Nowak, an anti-war, pro-labor music teacher who entered the race after Marshall voted down the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Stoller estimates that by the 2008 primaries, five to seven Bush Dog Democrats will be forced to put up their dukes.
OpenLeft isn’t alone. Some labor leaders, who have been instrumental in building Democratic majorities for decades, are equally frustrated with so-called “Democrats in name only.” “We would see too many representatives who sought the help of unions and progressive organizations during the campaign,” says former AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Rosenthal, “but once they were elected, they would abandon their principles on the tough fights and vote with corporate interests.”
In response, Rosenthal and leaders from MoveOn.org, SEIU, and other unions created two sister organizations last year to target Democrats who are out of line with their constituents. They Work For Us is an issue-based group that relays to voters where their representatives stand on topics important to workers, such as trade and the bankruptcy bill. Working For Us is the group’s PAC. Rosenthal says the PAC should be active in three campaigns next election cycle, and activists are showing great interest in labor’s strategy.
“When you talk to grassroots leaders and activists, it’s something people get extremely excited about because they are the ones on the frontline, living day-to-day with elected officials who are so out of step with them,” he says.
MoveOn may jump into the fray, as well. In early September, the organization asked members whether they supported primary challenges against Democrats who “side with the president on Iraq.” While the results had not been released as In These Times went to press, MoveOn members have not been shy in supporting challengers before. For instance, Connecticut members backed Ned Lamont by a whopping 85 percent during his 2006 primary defeat of Sen. Joe Lieberman.
However, as Bowers writes on OpenLeft, “This is going to be uncomfortable for many of us. Criticizing the people we just elected, people who may even be nice to us personally, is never easy.” But Democratic activists appear ready to fight for candidates who will support their values.
Is it worth it?
Many in the Democratic grassroots have been dissatisfied with the Democratic-controlled Congress, whose leadership has failed to pass significant progressive legislation. What’s more, the shift in the netroots from a highly partisan constituency to one more interested in ideology signals a tactical re-evaluation.
“Ideas matter … and your political strategy should be organized around enacting those ideas into social change,” says Stoller. “And that means you shouldn’t look at everything as simply a partisan, red vs. blue operation.”
Predictably, some Democrats in the center are apprehensive. “There are districts in states where an unusually good candidate, in an unusually good year, just isn’t going to win if they vote the way you want them to all the time,” says Ed Kilgore, managing editor of the Democratic Strategist, an online publication focusing on long-term Democratic strategy.
Other Democrats think running challengers in primaries may be a mistake, especially in an election year when Democrats could win the presidency and open up a sizable majority in the House. At least 14 Bush Dogs will likely face competitive re-election campaigns next cycle, according to analyses from The Cook Report and Congressional Quarterly. That means intra-party fights could tap Democratic resources, thereby allowing Republicans to swoop in and steal otherwise safe seats.
But back in Illinois’ 3rd district, Pera says voters “are looking for a representative that more accurately reflects their values.” He has argued for alternative energy innovation and strong conservation, topics he thinks incumbent Lipinski balked on by voting for Bush’s energy bill. Pera is pro-choice and a strong advocate for stem cell research. He also wants a firm timeline for withdrawal from Iraq.
Voters are buying into the platform. In the last 13 days of the third quarter, Pera netted $30,000 in small-donor contributions, outraising Lipinski by $25,000, according to the campaign.
Priming for primaries
Despite the concerns about Republican takeovers, primary-race challenges could improve party discipline. Incumbents would benefit from local races that force them to regularly reconnect with constituents. In the long run, ousting incumbents who are out-of-touch could save cash and time for activists who now spend limited resources lobbying conservative Democrats. More energy could be devoted to open races. Most importantly, internal challenges can give voice to voters and activists who are shunted aside when no mechanism for accountability exists.
Already in this election cycle, progressive Democrats claimed two open seats, Darcy Burner in Washington’s 8th district and Eric Massa in New York’s 29th. The netroots are looking to support more such candidates next year. Mike Lux, another OpenLeft contributor, says that expanding Democrats’ congressional control can be mutually enforcing. Take, for instance, a standard conservative Democrat. If her district is evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans, she has more power to swing tight votes. But with wider majorities, that leverage dissipates, and suddenly she’s forced to explain her vote for, say, keeping the minimum wage low. This type of accountability could minimize her right-wing tendencies.
If Pera’s campaign is representative of the atmosphere across the country, Democrats’ support for their party’s conservative wing may be on the wane. “The response has been phenomenal,” Pera says. “Democrats inside this district, within the metropolitan area of Chicago and across the country, expect Democrats to act and vote like Democrats.”