The Democratic Party Is Fighting to Keep Representatives It Needs to Lose

Representative Daniel Lipinski of Illinois. Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call,Inc.

Representative Dan Lipinski has spoken repeatedly at the March for Life. He’s sponsored 54 separate piece of anti-abortion legislation in Congress, according to one analysis produced by Planned Parenthood. He voted against the Affordable Care Act, and the DREAM Act, which would have created a path to permanent citizenship for undocumented youth brought to the United States as children. And in March, mere months after he survived a strong primary challenge, he refused to co-sponsor the Equality Act, which, if it ever becomes law, would expand discrimination protections to LGBT people.

For a Republican, Lipinski’s legislative record would hardly be newsworthy. But he is not a Republican. He is a Democrat, and the primary challenge he survived came from his left. On Tuesday, that challenger, Marie Newman, formally launched a second primary race against Lipinski. Newman, who is pro-choice and pro-LGBT rights, lost the 2018 primary to Lipinski, but came within 2,200 votes of the seven-term incumbent — a result that does not indicate rousing support for the conservative Catholic in his Illinois district. She has a real chance to win the nomination, but there are obstacles in her path. One was placed there by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, despite its ostensible commitment to abortion rights. The organization has already announced that it will “neither contract with nor recommend” vendors that work to oust incumbent Democrats, the National Journal reported in March.

The DCCC says that its new policy simply formalizes standards that were already in place. But the party will potentially put Newman at a disadvantage, and not for the first time. Newman’s first matchup with Lipinski also pitted the national party’s leadership against its grassroots allies. The DCCC supported Lipinski; so did then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Planned Parenthood backed Newman, as did NARAL Pro-Choice America, SEIU, and the American Federation of Teachers. If Newman picks up a similar collection of endorsements for her second run, the party will find itself working against some of its biggest allies to protect the seat of an anti-abortion man from a pro-choice woman candidate.

A second Newman campaign threatens to expose the anti-democratic implications of the party’s strategy. There is a thin sliver logic underneath the DCCC’s unwavering support for incumbents; the party needs to keep control of the House, and it believes left-wing candidates could jeopardize that goal if they run in conservative districts. But this logic doesn’t even apply to Lipinski or his district. Much like Representative Henry Cuellar of Texas, another Blue Dog Democrat who may face a primary from his left, Lipinski represents a thoroughly Democratic district. Democrats there voted for Bernie Sanders in the party’s primary, and the district itself voted for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump by a comfortable margin. There’s no reason to think the district would suddenly turn Republican if the more left-wing Newman defeated Lipinski in the primary. In fact, the local GOP is in such disarray that it couldn’t marshal an alternative to Art Jones, an unrepentant neo-Nazi who ran unchallenged in the party’s primary before losing badly to Lipinski in the general.

There are other reasons to think that Lipinski’s conservative politics are extraneous to his victories. Democratic candidates in other suburban districts flipped seats without running on anti-abortion platforms, and Lipinski did not rise to power on the strength of a conservative message. Rather, he’s in office partly because he had the good fortune to be the son of Bill Lipinski, who had represented the same district in Congress for 12 years. As the Chicago Tribune initially reported in 2004, the senior Lipinski essentially bequeathed the seat to his son; by the time he publicly announced his retirement, he’d “cleared the way” for junior’s succession, “courting support from members of the district’s special slating committee.” The Tribune called Dan Lipinksi’s eventual nomination “a foregone conclusion, as no other possible candidate showed up to lobby for support.” The maneuverings of the father spared the son the indignity of a primary, since the local committee appointed him directly as the nominee. Dan Lipinski’s career isn’t proof of his district’s socially conservative bona fides as much as it’s an example of political nepotism.

Lipinski isn’t anti-abortion because it’s what his constituency demands. He’s anti-abortion by choice. If party leaders back him over Newman — and penalize contractors who work for Newman’s campaign — they won’t just undermine a political cause they claim to prize. They’ll uphold nepotism, keep a woman out of the party’s delegation, and chill the democratic process. And for what? Dan Lipinski’s district doesn’t need him, and neither does his party.

The Democratic Party Is Fighting to Keep Reps It Should Lose