Here Comes the Democrats' Tea Party
In Illinois’s Third Congressional District, nonprofit executive Marie Newman is running against an anti-abortion, anti-Obamacare incumbent who is from a local political dynasty. Given a potential blue wave and the area’s consistent blue-lean, it seems like she might be headed for a seat in the Capitol. However, there’s a key difference between her and the dozens of other Democrats running against a pro-life incumbent: she is running against fellow Democrat, Congressman Dan Lipinski, in a race that’s virtually tied, according to recent polling. The challenge is noteworthy if only because primary challenges against incumbent House Democrats in Illinois are exceedingly rare. The stakes of the race are high beyond that, though. Democrats are heading into 2018 debating how big a tent their party should be and whether there is room for pro-life Democrats in their party. The fault lines in this primary are largely over the issue of abortion and whether pro-life Democrats like Lipinski can hold on when national party forces are against them.
The Democratic infighting dynamics are particularly pronounced in this case because the winner of the primary is guaranteed to win in November. Why is a Democrat’s victory assured? The only Republican candidate is an outspoken Holocaust denier who’s been disavowed by the entire apparatus of the Illinois Republican Party (including myself as a Ward Committeeman in Chicago). Even if a legitimate Republican were running, they would stand no chance: Lipinski won unopposed in 2016, and he and his father before him have held the seat going back decades.
While there are a few fault lines between Newman and Lipinski, the most significant one appears to be his pro-life stance. Newman has been endorsed by national groups and figures ranging from NARAL Pro-Choice America to New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. She also scored “rare” endorsements from Illinois figures including Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky and Congressman Luis Gutiérrez. Gutiérrez specifically stated that “Marie will fight for the reproductive freedom of all Illinois families.” Importantly, both Gutiérrez and Gillibrand are weighing presidential campaigns for 2020, and they likely would avoid wading into a primary like this unless they believed it wouldn’t harm their national ambitions going forward. In other words, potential Democratic presidential candidates seem to be getting behind someone running against one of their own.
Ironically, this district was originally drawn by “House Speaker Mike Madigan D-Chicago, also the chair of the Democratic Party of Illinois, to protect Lipinski [and a] big chunk of his vote comes from what’s left of the Chicago machine wards: 11, 13, 14, 19 and 23.”
But as this election indicates, there are signs that the district is shifting further to the left. Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary here, and many key Sanders supporters and groups are lined up behind Newman. In a somewhat stunning move, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee refused to endorse Lipinski’s bid for reelection as recently as this week.
Lipinski, not surprisingly, appears to recognize the ground shifting underneath him. He attended the Chicago March for Life before two of his fellow Illinois Members of Congress endorsed Newman. After that, he canceled his scheduled appearance at the March for Life in DC, blaming President Donald Trump’s appearance at it: “I have been critical of many things the president has said that have been offensive to the dignity of many individuals and groups. Unfortunately, no one knows what the president may say at any time. Knowing this, I chose not to speak at the Washington March for Life because I did not want to put myself in a potentially morally compromised situation."
Even though he canceled his appearance because of Trump, he is often referred to as a “Trump Democrat.” Lipinski also switched his position to support the $15 minimum wage that Newman supports, all while voting with Trump’s agenda over 30 percent of the time, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis.
Despite Lipinski’s early lead (a 49-18 showing in a January Poll), recent town halls have become more intense. Lipinski said about them, “[The town halls] have always been lively, but they have gotten worse, to the point that constituents tell me that they don’t show up because they’re afraid if they ask a question, they’ll get yelled at.” In the same January poll that had Lipinski crushing Newman, respondents actually gave Newman a 39-34 lead after receiving information about “Lipinski’s record on LGBT issues and immigration.”
While the primary might just seem like another primary challenge, this election might have important ramifications for the future of the Democratic party. Tom Perez, the Chair of the Democratic National Committee, was recently asked about whether the DNC had plans to play in the race, and he refused to support Lipinski. Last year, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi contradicted Perez’s statement that support for abortion “is not negotiable and should not change city by city or state by state.” And Lipinski himself is often at the forefront of national debates about whether Democrats have room for pro-life candidates. Pelosi likewise has stated that there is room (and recently endorsed Lipinski), whereas Adam Green, the Chair of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said that “we wouldn’t welcome candidates who are pushing anti-choice policies into the big tent any more than we would welcome racists and people who want to deregulate Wall Street.” In response, Lipinski compared his opponents to the Tea Party, and wondered why “we’ve been in in terms of the number of elected officials across the country since Herbert Hoover. And there are those who want to narrow the tent.”
This primary has set up a battle between local and national forces, as well as between pro-life and pro-choice Democrats. If Newman prevails over Lipinski, it might just open the door for other progressive challengers to tout her win as proof of their potential as well. A Tea Party of the left might just be on the horizon.
Matthew Foldi is a senior at the University of Chicago and is the youngest elected official in Chicago history, representing Chicago's Fifth Ward as Ward Committeeman. You can follow him on Twitter at @MatthewFoldi.