It’s good to be the incumbent. Democratic Rep. Daniel Lipinski narrowly survived a spirited challenge from progressive Marie Newman on Tuesday, in a primary race that could have implications beyond this Chicago district. Lipinski is a seven-term lawmaker, a legacy congressman, and one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress; Newman was a first-time candidate who had the backing of both the left and center of the Democratic Party, the support of big names like Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand, and even got a push in the final days of the campaign from a team of Barack Obama allies.
In the end, though, it wasn’t enough for Newman, a former marketing consultant who decided to run after participating in the Women’s March last year. Though Lipinski received little support from the national Democratic Party, he still had sufficient organizational support among the local party machinery to carry him through. Now, the only thing standing between Lipinski and an eighth term in this heavily Democratic district is an outspoken neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier who ran unopposed in the Republican primary.
Lipinski’s win will be heralded by his fellow Blue Dogs as proof that they and other moderate Democrats still have a place in their party, and that the wide variety of liberals who lined up behind Newman don’t speak for Democratic voters in certain swaths of the country.
The Lipinski victory comes one week after Conor Lamb’s special election victory in Pennsylvania, marking something of a resurgence for moderates after Sanders’ campaign and Donald Trump’s victory energized the party’s left flank. Lamb’s special election was so special—and Lamb so unique—that pretty much any Democrat could use it to craft the narrative of their choice. Not so with Lipinski.
Lipinski is one of three chairmen of the Blue Dog Coalition. And 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 in 2010, Lipinski is one of just three still in office.) He’s moderated some of those views recently: He voted to defend the health care law from Republican attempts to repeal it, and he now supports a path to citizenship for those immigrants brought here illegally as children. Still, he openly admits that he’s to the right of most of his fellow Democrats, and warns that ideological purity tests from progressives risk creating “a Tea Party of the left.”
With the exception of his fellow Blue Dogs, Lipinski was largely left hanging by the national party. House Democratic leaders offered only the obligatory support for a member of their own caucus, but no big names stepped forward to offer a full-throated endorsement. Instead, he had to rely on his friends in the Chicago political machine, to which he and his family have long and deep ties, and some deep-pocketed donors, like Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago Bulls and White Sox, who helped bankroll a super PAC that backed Lipinski.
Meanwhile, Newman’s bandwagon was overflowing with newer energy. Among those who backed her were progressive outfits like MoveOn.org and Democracy for America, and more centrist ones like the Service Employees International Union and the Human Rights Campaign. In addition to national figures like Sanders and Gillibrand, she also had the backing of Illinois Reps. Luís Gutierrez and Jan Schakowsky, a member of the DCCC’s leadership team.
Their message was hard to miss: Lipinski was out of step with the national Democratic Party, and had failed to move leftward with his district in the decade and a half since his congressman-father gifted him the seat in 2004. That was bad enough in years past, the argument went, but it was downright dangerous in the age of Trump. One pro-Newman super PAC aired ads blasting Lipinski’s opposition to LGTBQ rights and a woman’s right to choose, with the narrator declaring: “You can’t fight Trump when you agree with him.”
The Sanders wing, however, did not come up completely empty handed on Tuesday. Jesús “Chuy” García, a Cook County commissioner who Sanders endorsed, coasted to victory in his Democratic primary in Illinois’ 4th Congressional District. García, though, entered the night as the overwhelming favorite after Democratic Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez helped clear the field following his surprise retirement.
Late Tuesday night, while Newman was down but not yet officially out, Sanders issued a statement congratulating Garcia and four other local candidates on their wins. He made no mention of Newman.