The Slatest

Bernie Sanders Joins the Bandwagon Against a Blue Dog

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 13:  Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a rally against the Republican tax plan on December 13, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Zach Gibson/Getty Images)
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks during a rally against the Republican tax plan on Dec. 13 in Washington.
Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Bernie Sanders has endorsed his fourth congressional candidate of 2018—and unlike the first three, this one is aiming to take out a sitting Democratic congressman, Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski. The seven-term lawmaker has long been a target of progressives who see his anti-abortion and anti-LGTBQ views as out of step with the national Democratic Party. But Lipinski had never faced a serious primary challenge—until this year, that is.

For most of his career, Lipinski has been an afterthought for national Democrats, comfortably holding down a safe seat in a suburban Chicago district. But as the party tries to harness a wave of energy unleashed by Sanders’ primary run and then magnified by the anti-Trump resistance, Lipinski has become a lightning rod for the left and his primary has become one of the most closely-watched in the country. While Nancy Pelosi has insisted there’s no “litmus test” for House candidates, a number of Democratic leaders appear to disagree, enthusiastically lining up behind his progressive challenger, Marie Newman.

“Marie Newman has made it clear that she will be a champion for working families in Illinois, which is why I am proud to support her campaign,” Sanders said in a statement on Thursday, which went on to tout a number of Newman’s policy goals that line up with his own, including Medicare for all and raising the minimum wage to $15. “I am proud to stand with Marie and look forward to continuing to fight alongside her on these and other critical issues once she’s elected to Congress.”

Our Revolution, the PAC that sprung up from the remains of the his 2016 campaign, had already endorsed Newman, and Sanders himself had suggested he was leaning toward doing the same during a recent swing through the Midwest to stump for the other House candidates he’s backing.

At this point, Sanders is joining a rather crowded bandwagon. Newman already has the backing of a wide swath of liberal groups, ranging from establishment-leaning ones like the Service Employees International Union and the Human Rights Campaign to more progressive outfits like and Democracy for America. Bernie isn’t even the first Democratic lawmaker to back Newman—New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Illinois Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Luís Gutierrez beat him to that punch.

And yet none of those names can move the needle quite like Bernie, particularly in a district like this that he won over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primary. His endorsement has the potential to boost Newman’s fundraising through his small-dollar donor network and increase turnout—particularly among younger voters—in a Democratic primary that is less than two weeks away.

Lipinski was first elected to Congress back in 2004 after his congressman-father decided not to run for re-election after winning the Democratic nomination, and then convinced the state party to gift the nomination to his son. The younger Lipinski is one of three chairmen of the Blue Dog Coalition, but he looks more like a dinosaur in today’s Democratic Party. In addition to being staunchly anti-abortion, he voted against recognizing same-sex marriage, against the DREAM Act, and against Obamacare. (Of the 34 House Democrats who voted against the ACA, Lipinski is one of just three still in office.) He’s moderated some of his views recently—he’s voted to defend the healthcare law from Republican attempts to repeal it, and now supports a path to citizenship for those immigrants brought here illegally as children—but he openly admits that he’s to the right of most of his colleagues. He also warns that ideological purity tests from progressives risk creating “a Tea Party of the left.”

So far, though, Lipinski hasn’t gotten much help from the Democratic establishment. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee opted against endorsing him, an unusual step for the official arm of House Democrats. And with the exception of his fellow Blue Dogs, his most vocal backer has probably been Pelosi, and the best she could do was offer a rather tepid “Yes, I do,” when asked whether she supported him at a news conference last week.

One major reason why Democrats are willing to leave an incumbent like Lipinski hanging is because so little is at risk. Unlike in Texas’s 7th Congressional District, where the DCCC recently tried to nuke a progressive candidate they fear will cost them a winnable district, Illinois’ 3rd is about as safe as you can get. It’s been held by a Democrat for the past four decades and went for Clinton by 15 points two years ago. House Republicans, meanwhile, didn’t put much energy into finding a challenger of their own. The lone candidate on the GOP primary ballot is an outspoken neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier.

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City.