The Slatest

Team Obama Joins the Democratic Pile On Against a Wounded Blue Dog

Dan Lipinski.
Rep. Dan Lipinski speaks at a news conference in the Capitol Visitor Center on Oct. 9, 2013.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call

In 2010, Rep. Dan Lipinski, an Illinois Democrat, voted against Barack Obama’s landmark health care bill. In 2012, Lipinski declined to publicly endorse Obama for a second term as president. In 2018, Team Obama is getting some revenge.

On Thursday, a group of former Obama aides and allies held a press conference in Chicago to join what has become a partywide dog pile on Lipinski, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. The public rebuke came only days before next Tuesday’s Illinois primary, in which Lipinski will face the first serious electoral challenge of his career, from a progressive challenger, Marie Newman, in one of the most closely watched primaries of the year.

The impetus for Thursday’s event was a recent campaign mailer sent out by a Lipinski-aligned super PAC that questioned Newman’s professional résumé. It featured a photo of Obama on one side with the words, “Known for Leading,” and one of Newman on the other with the words, “Known for Misleading.” That opened up old wounds for the Obama loyalists, who seized the opportunity to join the parade of prominent Democrats opposing Lipinski’s re-election.

“This is about calling out hypocrisy, frankly, and letting voters know what their representative is doing in Congress, and lying about their record and allegiances is not going to be tolerated,” said John Atkinson, a former Obama campaign aide. David Axelrod, Obama’s former campaign strategist, wasn’t at the event himself, but he expressed a similar sentiment on Twitter the night before, calling the ad “cynical” and “galling.”

Lipinski’s campaign says it had nothing to do with the mailer, though a spokesman made sure to use the opportunity to note, “it does raise some serious concerns about the truthfulness of many of Marie Newman’s claims about herself.” Regardless, it appears to have backfired.

It will be especially difficult to gauge whether the Obama reprisals have any effect on this race. A wide swath of liberals had already come out against Lipinski over positions they say are out of step with both the national party and his own constituents, including his opposition to marriage equality and a woman’s right to choose. Among those opposing Lipinski are progressive outfits like MoveOn.org and Democracy for America, and more centrist ones like the Service Employees International Union and the Human Rights Campaign. Big Democratic names like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand have also sided with Newman, as have smaller, local ones like Illinois Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Luis Gutiérrez. Given Obama himself is unlikely to get involved in a race like this, the public scolding from his friends means the anti-Lipinski Democratic bandwagon is now about as full as it can possibly get.

Some progressives have billed the race as a “battle for the soul of the Democratic Party,” but it feels more like a last stand for a shrinking faction of moderate Democrats. Aside from his fellow Blue Dogs, Lipinski has received only the obligatory backing of House leaders, who would prefer not to be seen crossing their own members but also have little interest in deepening the intra-party dispute. Asked whether she supports Lipinski, Nancy Pelosi offered a rather tepid “Yes, I do.”

For most of his career, Lipinski was an afterthought for national Democrats, comfortably holding down a safe seat in a suburban Chicago district that was gifted to him by his father, Bill, who represented the district for a decade before deciding not to run for re-election in 2004 after he won the Democratic nomination that year. The elder Lipinski then convinced the state party to hand the nomination to his son. Six years after that, party bosses helped redraw the district so it remained safely Democratic but also included a few more socially conservative suburbs. Lipinski has coasted to re-election ever since.

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 in 2010, Lipinski is one of just three still in office.) He’s moderated some of his views recently: He voted to defend the health care law from Republican attempts to repeal it, he now supports a path to citizenship for those immigrants brought here illegally as children, and while he remains proudly anti-abortion, he backed out of a scheduled speech at the national March for Life in January at the last minute.
Still, he openly admits that he’s to the right of most of his fellow Democrats. He also warns that ideological purity tests from progressives risk creating “a Tea Party of the left.”

This is only the second primary challenge Lipinski has faced; he easily survived his first, in 2012, with more than 87 percent of the vote. Given his name recognition and deep ties in a district that he and his father have represented since 1993, it remains very possible he’ll prevail again on Tuesday despite the not-so-friendly fire from his own party. But thanks to the wave of progressive energy unleashed by Sanders’ primary run and then magnified by the anti-Trump resistance, Lipinski is now locked in the fight of his political life.

The Illinois race comes one week after the party notched a surprise victory in Pennsylvania, where moderate Democrats are now holding up Conor Lamb as an example of the type of center-left candidates the party needs more of in the midterms. The difference, of course, is that  Democrats don’t need to flip Lipinski’s seat or even protect it, since it’s already about as safe as it can get. (The winner of the primary will face an outspoken neo-Nazi and Holocaust denier who the state GOP has already denounced.)

If Lipinski survives, the Blue Dogs will bolster their case that moderate Democrats still have an important place in the party’s next iteration. If Newman wins, progressives will have purged one of the most conservative members from their ranks. And she’ll have a lot of people to thank.

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