Tuesday’s Illinois primary has been hyped as an ideological bellwether for both parties. On the Republican side, there’s openly bigoted state Rep. Jeanne Ives running hard to the right of Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner. On the Democratic side, there’s progressive newbie Marie Newman trying to oust seven-term Congressman Dan Lipinski, a chairman of the Blue Dog Democrats.
There are several issues at stake here—LGBTQ rights, health care access, protections for immigrants—but for both challengers, the most animating issue is abortion. Some conservative members of Rauner’s party see him as a traitor for signing a 2017 bill that provides coverage for abortion care in state-funded health insurance plans, including Medicaid plans and those offered to state employees. Lipinski, on the other hand, is one of the few staunch anti-abortion Democrats in Congress. By Wednesday, both incumbents could become casualties of their parties’ increasing demands for purity in abortion politics.
Rauner, who has never made himself out to be anything but pro-choice, was an outlier in the Republican Party to begin with. As part of a cross-over campaign in the heavily Democratic state, Rauner flat-out said during his 2014 run that he supported abortion access for women of all income levels. Such statements might have been helped Rauner break a 12-year string of Democratic rule in Springfield. Conservatives have railed against Rauner’s wife, Diana, for being a lifelong Democrat and a donor to Planned Parenthood. “I consider my husband and I warriors for social justice, and we don’t always agree on the methods to get there,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times last year in a piece about her friendship with the wife of the Democratic speaker of the Illinois House, one of Rauner’s political enemies. It was an unfortunate choice of words, since “social justice warrior” has become an epithet used by members of the far-right against people advocating for civil rights and gender equity.
Still, Rauner promised in his campaign that he had no social agenda, and that was enough for Republican primary voters, who presumably forgot that a governor must still make judgments on legislation outside his agenda. When the abortion funding bill began trickling through the state legislature last year, Rauner walked back the general endorsement he made during his campaign. His challenger, Ives, now claims Rauner “promised the GOP caucus he would veto this bill.” For Democrats, putting Rauner in this tight spot with the bill was almost as worthwhile as the bill’s contents themselves. The governor was forced to choose between shoring up his conservative bona fides with a veto, which would give the Democrats reason to accuse him of flip-flopping when his reelection campaign rolled around, or signing it and risking the support of his own party.
Ives, whose internal polling shows her trailing Rauner by 7 percentage points, attacked the governor’s pro-choice governing at the Chicago March for Life in January. “We can change this for once and all,” she said. “We can put the right people in power, the right people in elected office to finally end abortion in our time.” Her rhetoric was remarkably similar to that of Mike Pence, and her campaign tactics have closely mirrored Donald Trump’s. An ad Ives released last month featured a male actor in a dress, a black woman in a union T-shirt, a white woman in the type of pink “pussy hat” popularized by the Women’s March, and a man dressed as an antifa demonstrator respectively thanking Rauner for “signing legislation that lets me use the girls’ bathroom,” enacting a “bailout” of teacher pensions, “making all Illinois families pay for my abortions,” and turning Illinois into “a sanctuary state for illegal immigrant criminals.” The ad was inaccurate on many counts: For one thing, Rauner never signed any bills about bathroom use, though he did sign one that makes it easier for transgender people to change the genders on their birth certificates and one banning conversion “therapy” for gay and trans minors. But Ives is banking that the open vitriol against women, people of color, and immigrants that helped Trump win the Illinois presidential primary will give her a boost against Rauner and the establishment Republican Party, which has historically favored dog whistles over megaphones when it comes to identity-based prejudice.
The Trump presidency is indirectly responsible for Democrats’ long-overdue turn against Lipinski, too. Newman has said that last January’s Women’s March was a “congealing moment” for her new political ambitions. The protest “was really the first time I realized nobody is coming to save us,” she told CNN. “I felt powerful and I felt everyone around me was powerful.” Since Lipinski’s district has gotten younger and less white in recent years, the time seemed right for a shakeup. Lipinski has regularly voted against gay rights, the Affordable Care Act, immigrant rights, and abortion rights. The fact that he’s been able to run unopposed in the Democratic primary for so long (he’s only been primaried once before) in a solidly Democratic district is a testament to the inertia that keeps political parties complacent and stale, to the detriment of progress.
On abortion, Lipinski is no middle-of-the-road legislator along the lines of Tim Kaine or the recently elected Conor Lamb, who say they personally oppose abortion but support a woman’s right to get one. Lipinski calls fetuses “the innocent unborn,” co-sponsors anti-choice legislation, and campaigns with members of the Susan B. Anthony List, one of the most notorious anti-abortion advocacy groups. With Newman as a credible challenger, all the big-name liberal and progressive groups have fallen over themselves to endorse her. EMILY’s List, SEIU, the Human Rights Campaign, MoveOn.org, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Bernie Sanders are all on Team Newman. Last week, Planned Parenthood released a list of “54 Times Rep. Dan Lipinski Sponsored Attacks on Women’s Health” and a group of former Barack Obama aides and allies came out against the congressman. For Lipinski’s part, he’s earned an obligatory nod from Nancy Pelosi, who knows better than to besmirch one of her party members in Congress.
A recent Public Policy Polling survey has Newman just 2 points behind Lipinski, a gap that’s within the margin of error. If she wins the nomination, the victory will be a rallying point for progressives and women’s rights advocates around the country, who will see it in the context of other recent electoral wins that may have seemed impossible pre-Trump. If she doesn’t, the race should still serve as a warning sign to Democrats who won’t commit to women’s health care.
Earlier this month, Lipinski warned of a rising “tea party of the left” that was threatening the “big tent” party the Democrats needed to create. His constituents will decide tomorrow whether his votes on abortion and health care track with his stated desire “to be for working men and women, for being champions of the middle class,” and whether a big tent should give cover to politicians who deny freedoms and protections to others under it. Lipinski has made decisions on abortion according to his conscience for 13 years in the Senate. Perhaps his district’s next representative will allow women to do the same.