Two years after he barely fended off a primary challenge from progressive Marie Newman, Illinois Democrat Dan Lipinski will leave Congress after he was defeated by Newman in Tuesday’s primary. Her victory was a lone bright spot for progressives, who saw their hopes for a Bernie Sanders presidency fade amid a slew of victories for Joe Biden. Since Lipinski’s district is reliably Democratic, Newman will almost certainly enter Congress in November.
To get there, she didn’t just defeat the anti-abortion Lipinski, but also party leadership. House leadership had endorsed Lipinski over Newman, just as they did in 2018, when he defeated her by 2.2 points. To protect Lipinski and other incumbents, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee formalized a blacklist of vendors who worked for the insurgent Newman, resulting in the departure of several vendors from her campaign last year.
Newman’s candidacy thus divided House leadership — namely, Speaker Nancy Pelosi and DCCC chairwoman Cheri Bustos — from a number of their allies in the labor and reproductive rights movements. The same dynamic emerged in Texas, where Pelosi campaigned for conservative incumbent Henry Cuellar against Jessica Cisneros, a progressive 26-year-old immigration attorney. Though she gained the support of several prominent Texas unions and major reproductive rights organizations like NARAL Pro-Choice America, Cisneros went on to lose to Cuellar by four points. A loss, but still a promising finish for Cisneros in her first-ever political campaign.
The strength of Cisneros’s underdog campaign against Cuellar, and Newman’s victory over Lipinski, ought to provoke a reckoning within the party. Its blanket defense of incumbents not only weakens its commitment to the policies on its platform, it wastes resources in defense of candidates who may be ideologically out of sync with their districts. Lipinski is a particularly strange Democrat for the DCCC to defend. Though he argued that his cultural and fiscal conservativism represented the views of his district, the case for Lipinski’s electability was weakened by his family background. Like Cuellar and Joe Crowley, who famously lost to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2016, Lipinski benefited from familial connections. Unlike Cuellar or even Crowley, Lipinski also essentially inherited his seat from his father, Bill. The elder Lipinski represented the same congressional district for 12 years, and according to reports at the time, lobbied the district’s selection committee on behalf of his son. No one else challenged the younger Lipinski for his seat.
But nepotism only gets a person so far. Newman’s argument was always that she, and not Lipinski, better represented the interests of the district. A former advertising consultant from the Chicago area, Newman didn’t just support abortion rights. She was endorsed by Justice Democrats, as were Ocasio-Cortez and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and she embraced a wide range of left-wing policies, including the Green New Deal, a $15 minimum wage, and Medicare for All. That was what her district wanted from a congressional representative, she told Intelligencer last May. “Everybody wants 15 dollars an hour. Everybody wants paid leave. Everybody wants universal child care and we must — and this is what I’m very focused on — bridge the income divide,” she explained.
That argument won. Machine politics lost, and so did party inertia. That’s a victory for progressives, even if their preferred candidate doesn’t head the Democratic Party’s presidential ticket in November.