Outside groups that spent on either side of Tuesday’s close Democratic primary in Illinois’ 3rd District are feeling energized by the results as they look ahead to the midterms and beyond.
Seven-term Rep. Daniel Lipinski narrowly defeated first-time candidate Marie Newman on Tuesday in a race that only looked competitive in the final months of the campaign. He finished with 51 percent of the vote to Newman’s 49 percent.
And even though Lipinski held on, allies of both him and Newman saw the outcome as validation of their respective agendas heading into the the fall.
Progressives who backed Newman celebrated her rise in a matter of months from relative obscurity to nearly toppling an incumbent whose last name has been on the ballot in this suburban Chicago district for nearly 36 years. (Lipinski’s father, Bill, served 22 years in the House before him.)
The outside group tied to No Labels that spent on Lipinski’s behalf interpreted his victory, combined with Democrat Conor Lamb’s in Pennsylvania’s 18th District last week, as a sign that voters want to back moderate candidates.
Lipinski benefited from spending from United for Progress, a Democratic super PAC that falls under the umbrella organization Country Forward — the political affiliate of No Labels that exists to play in congressional races. The group first got involved in Illinois’ 3rd District in July 2017, well before the contest was on the national radar. The group said it eventually invested $1.3 million in the race.
“The DCCC left him for dead. Nobody came to his aide with the exception of our efforts and some canvassing from Susan B. Anthony List,” said Matt Kalmans, a strategist for Country Forward. “It’s a perfect case of why these kinds of efforts are so important.
The 3rd District race is the third contest Country Forward has gotten involved in since 2016, and in the wake of Lipinski’s victory this week, the group’s donors are committed to playing in dozens of other races this year.
That could include defending members of the Problem Solvers Caucus, of which Lipinski is a member, and playing in open-seat primaries. Kalmans said it was too soon to talk about specific investments in other races.
Donors had been frustrated by the defeat of those they saw as centrist lawmakers in internecine battles, especially in 2010, that took both parties to the extremes, Kalmans said.
Kalmans — and the donors behind Country Forwad — hope their electoral efforts will encourage members to work across the aisle. The idea is that if members who buck their own party know they’re going to have air cover back home, they won’t be so afraid of a primary challenge from the left or right.
Country Forward first got involved in races with a GOP super PAC to help defeat Kansas Rep. Tim Huelskamp, a member of the Freedom Caucus, in his 2016 primary. The same year, one of their Democratic super PACs played in the Democratic primary for Florida’s 9th District on behalf of for now-Rep. Darren Soto. It was a four-way contest in which former Rep. Alan Grayson’s wife was also on the ballot for the seat he was vacating to run for Senate.
Kalmans sees the group’s efforts as instrumental to Lipinski, who was outraised by Newman as of the pre-primary reporting period.
“For the first time, there really was centrist fundraising capital and an apparatus that wasn’t just last-minute,” Kalmans said. “This could have had a ripple effect for the rest of the cycle as members were worried about these sorts of challengers.”
A close finish
Newman’s allies, though, think Democrats around the country should take note of her close finish against a longtime incumbent with deep ties to Chicago’s political machine. Newman herself vowed to work to defeat Lipinski in 2020.
NARAL Pro-Choice America was one of the first groups to back Newman, airing TV ads attacking Lipinski last November. Newman eventually benefited from a coalition of progressive and pro-abortion rights groups that formed a super PAC called Citizens for a Better Illinois. That independent expenditure effort — started by NARAL and supported by the Human Rights Campaign, the Service Employee International Union, MoveOn.org, Planned Parenthood Action Fund, Planned Parenthood Votes, and EMILY’s List — said it spent more than $1.6 million on the race.
“While we didn’t win this race, we know history is on the side of those who seek to advance the rights and freedoms of all Americans,” Citizens for a Better Illinois spokesman Doug Gordon said in a statement Wednesday. “We also know the Democratic Party is best positioned to win when it has elected officials who will stand up and fight for our values.”
Newman’s supporters had argued that Lipinski, an opponent of abortion rights and one of the only remaining House Democrats who voted against the 2010 health care law, didn’t represent the modern Democratic Party. Ads from Newman and Citizens for a Better Illinois sought to tie him to President Donald Trump.
Planned Parenthood Action Fund hasn’t been involved in any other primaries, but executive vice president Dawn Laguens said the tight race showed “voters are hungry to support candidates who champion women’s health and rights.”
The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which was not a part of the IE coalition that spent for Newman, praised the losing candidate’s “inspiring progressive message” for helping her finish so close and, on the same day, rolled out endorsements of four more candidates in contested Democratic primaries this year.
Watch: Blue Dog vs. Progressive: What to Watch in the Illinois Primaries
Clarification 2:41 p.m. | An earlier version of this story mischaracterized Country Forward’s potential involvement in a House race in Pennsylvania.