In a state where Democrats are targeting four Republican-held seats in November and need viable candidates to make it through Tuesday’s primaries, the nominating contest in Illinois that’s receiving the most attention is in a safe Democratic district.
Rep. Daniel Lipinski, co-chairman of the moderate Blue Dog Coalition, is facing the toughest contest of his seven-term congressional career with a primary challenge from marketing executive Marie Newman for his 3rd District seat.
When two Democrats from the Illinois delegation, one of them a member of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee leadership, endorsed Newman at a press conference in a Capitol Hill townhouse two months ago, just two reporters showed up. EMILY’s List and Planned Parenthood Action Fund had yet to get involved for the challenger.
Since then, the race has been quickly nationalized, by both the media and outside groups, as a fight over the identity of the Democratic Party.
Lipinski has narrowly led in the latest public polling conducted for Newman’s allies, but strategists on both sides expect Tuesday’s contest to be close.
Watch: Blue Dog vs. Progressive — What to Watch in the Illinois Primaries
Newman and her supporters talk about more than just abortion. She’s attacked Lipinski for voting against the 2010 health care law and opposing LGBTQ rights. But the involvement of specific outside groups here says a lot about what’s perceived as the dominant topic in the race.
“Social issues have emerged as the defining issue between Marie Newman and Dan Lipinski,” said Illinois Democrat Cheri Bustos, who is not getting involved in the primary.
“It’s a district — if you look at what’s happened over time — it’s started to change in the direction. It’s going a little bit further left than it was before,” Bustos said of the 3rd District, which includes parts of Chicago and its western and southwestern suburbs.
Lipinski is one of just three House Democrats — all men — who consistently vote against abortion rights. This race comes after a post-2016 election debate among Democrats about whether their party should be a big-tent one that includes opponents of abortion rights or whether it should be more progressively pure on social issues.
Endorsing Newman in January, Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez said Lipinski belonged in the Democratic Party of 1996, referencing the enactment of the so-called Defense of Marriage Act that year.
Newman tries to make the case that Lipinski is out of touch with the district. She has the endorsement of Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, who carried the district in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary.
New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was Newman’s first congressional backer. Along with Gutiérrez, Rep. Jan Schakowsky also endorsed her in January. On Friday, she picked up the backing of Congressional Progressive Caucus leadership: co-chairmen Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Raúl M. Grijalva of Arizona and vice chairwoman Pramila Jayapal of Washington.
NARAL Pro-Choice America, the Human Rights Campaign, Service Employee International Union, MoveOn.org, Planned Parenthood Action Fund and EMILY’s List have partnered on a joint independent expenditure program, called Citizens for a Better Illinois, that’s attacking Lipinski. “You can’t fight Trump when you agree with them,” the narrator says in one of the super PAC’s TV ads.
Lipinski has a super PAC spending on his behalf too, although mailers from United for Progress triggered a strong response from allies of former President Barack Obama on Thursday. They weren’t happy the pro-Lipinski group had used an image of Obama on a mail piece attacking Newman. (Lipinski voted against the 2010 health care law, although he has opposed efforts to repeal it.) The anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony List also announced a late investment for Lipinski on Thursday.
But the politics that might end up saving Lipinski could still be local. A Lipinski has been on the ballot here for nearly 36 years — his father, Bill, held the seat before him — so he’s got the ground game of a local Chicago politician with deep ties to the city’s Democratic Party bosses. Both of the city’s newspapers have backed him, calling him a champion for working people. The AFL-CIO and many other local unions are behind him, too.
“People know who he is. They consistently send him back. I don’t think groups trying to come in and nationalize the race is going to work,” said a Democratic consultant who works with moderate candidates.
As an incumbent, Lipinski started this race with a hefty cash advantage, and the primary challenge has forced him to spend.
Newman hasn’t been a fundraising powerhouse — she ended last year’s third quarter with just $98,000 — which meant major groups like EMILY’s List didn’t immediately back her. She had to prove she had some fundraising viability, and the endorsement from Schakowsky seems to have helped. Newman raised $534,000 during the pre-primary reporting period that covered the first two months of the year compared to Lipinski’s $227,000.
There could still be more late spending, which means the full extent of outside and candidate investment likely won’t be known until after Tuesday.
House Democratic leadership has stuck by Lipinski, and besides Gutiérrez and Schakowsky, the Illinois delegation has stayed out of the race.
Blue Dog Democats expressed anger earlier this winter that the DCCC hadn’t come through with an endorsement for the incumbent. But Lipinski has since told the Washington Examiner he’s getting the committee’s support.
“And I would hope so,” Blue Dog Kurt Schrader said in the Speaker’s Lobby on Wednesday. “Why would members pay dues to the DCCC if they don’t have your back at the end of the day?”
The Oregon Democrat and other members of the coalition have been critical of Schakowsky for being a part of DCCC leadership and still backing a challenger to a sitting member. (The committee exists as an incumbent protection organization.)
“I’m going to be pushing for a big rule change — that if you’re on the DCCC committee, you must support incumbents,” Schrader said. “As long as they’re not ethically challenged, they should be supported.”
DCCC Chairman Ben Ray Luján expressed confidence in Lipinski’s campaign Wednesday, calling him a “great guy.”
“Dan has support of his constituents, he has resources to be able to communicate with his constituents and run a strong campaign. He’s running to win,” Luján said.
Other Democrats are concerned that outside groups that typically back Democratic candidates are spending money that could be used against Republicans in November.
“We can have conversations about ideological purity, but now is not the time — not when there’s such an urgent imperative to take back the House,” a strategist said.