During the 2016 Democratic presidential nominating contest, it became an article of faith among Bernie Sanders supporters that “closed” primaries that prevented non-registered-Democrats from participating were a key part of the “rigging” of the process in favor of Hillary Clinton. While it was really a stretch to claim that election systems created years ago by state legislatures, many of which were controlled by the GOP, were designed to defeat candidates like Sanders, there was a plausible case to be made that in 2016, at least, closed primaries (particularly those like New York’s that prevented changes in party registration for months before a primary) kept a lot of left-leaning independents from turning out for the insurgent candidate.
It is somewhat embarrassing to Berniecrats, then, that an open primary in Illinois may have materially contributed to the defeat of their very favorite insurgent candidate of the young 2018 election season: the Third District’s Marie Newman, who lost by an eyelash yesterday to incumbent Democrat Dan Lipinski. Newman, who was endorsed by Sanders (and by Jan Schakowsky and Luis Gutiérrez, progressive colleagues of Lipinski from Chicago), ran against Lipinski’s record of opposition to abortion rights, Obamacare, the Dream Act, and other Democratic priorities. Somewhat ironically, if predictably, Lipinski was backed by the House Democratic leaders and the AFL-CIO.
But what in the end may have saved the incumbent was crossover voting from Republicans, particularly anti-abortion Republicans, as Ryan Grim reports:
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 have 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.
The anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List became heavily invested in Lipinski’s survival. And easing the way for Republicans to vote for him was the fact that the GOP discouraged its voters from casting a ballot for the only Third District candidate who qualified for the Republican primary, neo-Nazi Art Jones.
Yes, most of the state’s anti-abortion activist energy was focused on Ives’s challenge to pro-choice Republican governor Bruce Rauner, which came nearly as close as Newman’s campaign to pulling the upset. But Ives’s most prominent national backer, National Review magazine, explicitly encouraged Republicans in the Third District to cross over and vote for Lipinski.
Yes, it’s also possible the Newman campaign pulled some pro-choice Republicans across the line into the Democratic primary, and independents may have backed both candidates; it’s hard to tell without exit polls, particularly in a state with no voter registration by party. Moreover, one can always cite multiple factors that “decided” very close elections.
But the possibility open-primary rules saved Lipinski should serve as a reminder that open primaries are no panacea for progressive Democrats, even if they might have helped Sanders in 2016 with his disproportionately youthful (and thus disproportionately likely to register as independents) following. Primary interlopers can come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and ideological preoccupations.