Illinois voters head to the polls in the second statewide primary in the nation this year, and the results will shed some more light on how Democrats and Republicans are navigating their internal divisions in the lead-up to the midterms. But unlike the congressional races in Texas earlier this month, the party infighting in Illinois has threatened even some multiterm incumbents.
How much is money worth in a primary race driven by ideological purity? Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner and Democrat J.B. Pritzker—a multimillionaire and a billionaire, respectively—remain the heavy front-runners in their primaries, but neither of the obscenely wealthy men has been able to coast to the nomination despite spending tens of millions of dollars. Rauner has drawn a stronger-than-expected challenge from state Rep. Jeanne Ives, a conservative firebrand trying her best to replicate Donald Trump’s campaign formula of bigotry and anger. And Pritzker has found himself pushed by Chris Kennedy—son of Robert F. Kennedy—and Daniel Biss, a suburban state senator who has gone after Pritzker for being slow to endorse Barack Obama for re-election in 2012.
Ives has come at Rauner hard from the right on social issues, including abortion, marriage equality, and transgender rights, the latter of which she claims is “something that is made up from the media.” She also drew a rebuke from her own party for an offensive television ad that featured a procession of conservative boogeymen—a black woman in a Chicago Teachers Union shirt, a white woman in a pink knit cap, etc.—“thanking” Rauner for his help. The Democratic Governors Association, sensing an opportunity, has begun to meddle in the GOP race as well. They recently began airing an ad calling Ives “too conservative,” but doing it in a way clearly designed to boost her standing among Republican primary voters.
Rauner also has plenty of problems of his own making. He spent much of his first term clashing with Democrats over everything from labor unions to schools, and he drew sharp criticism for his administration’s handling of an outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease in a state-run veterans facility that claimed the lives of more than a dozen people.
Pritzker has his own baggage as well, most notably FBI wiretaps on which he talks to then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2008 about how Blagojevich might fill Obama’s old Senate seat, and about the possibility of appointing Pritzker as state treasurer if the opportunity were to arise. During those talks, Pritzker described Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White, who is black, as the “the least offensive” option for Senate and someone who would provide cover “on the African-American thing.” Pritzker initially struggled to contain the fallout from leaders in the black community, but appears to have overcome some of those concerns. White himself introduced Pritzker to parishioners in a series of church visits on Sunday morning.
3rd Congressional District
For most of his career, Rep. Daniel Lipinski has been an afterthought for national Democrats, comfortably holding down a safe seat in a suburban Chicago district that was gifted to him by his father in 2004. But not this year. Lipinski, one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress, is facing a spirited challenge from Marie Newman, a former marketing consultant who decided to run after the Women’s March and has the backing of powerful groups on the left and center of the Democratic Party, as well as support from the likes of Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, and a team of former Barack Obama aides.
Lipinski, meanwhile, has largely been left hanging by the establishment. House leaders have offered the obligatory cursory support for a member of their own caucus, but with the exception of Lipinski’s fellow Blue Dogs, no big names have stepped forward to offer a full-throated endorsement. One reason for that is that the seven-term congressman looks more than a little out of place 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. Party leaders say they don’t believe in litmus tests for candidates, and while that may be generally true, it’s also clear that they have little interest in going to war with the left in a primary like this one, where the winner is pretty much a lock to keep the seat blue this November.
Given Lipinski’s name recognition and deep ties in a district that he and his father have represented since 1993, it remains very possible he’ll prevail on Tuesday despite the Democratic pile-on. But a poll from late last month showed the two in a statistical dead heat—Lipinski 43 percent, Newman 41—and that was before Sanders got involved personally, and Obama by proxy. A Newman victory would suggest the Blue Dogs’ days may be numbered in Congress, particularly in liberal-leaning districts, but a Lipinski win would bolster their case that moderate Democrats can still compete almost anywhere in the country.
4th Congressional District
There should be far less suspense in this safely Democratic district. Pretty much immediately after Democratic Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez unexpectedly announced he was retiring at the end of this term, he endorsed Cook County Commissioner Jesús “Chuy” García as his successor. Bernie Sanders later jumped on board as well, making Garcia, who mounted a progressive challenge to Mayor Rahm Emanuel in Chicago in 2015, one of only a handful of congressional candidates Sanders has personally endorsed this year.
García and Gutiérrez faced some early criticism about what looked an awful like an orchestrated handoff, one that effectively cleared the field for García. Regardless, the political gamesmanship seems to have worked, and neither of the other two Democrats running have been able to break through. The polling has been a bit spotty in the district, but an internal survey commissioned by Garcia from January suggests he began the year with a massive head start in both name ID and support. There’s little reason to believe anything’s changed since.
6th Congressional District
Rep. Peter Roskam has no GOP challenger, but seven Democrats are competing for the chance to unseat him this November in a race on the DCCC’s wish list. Democrats would love to flip any seat, but this one would prove sweeter than most given Roskam’s role in helping pass the GOP’s tax overhaul and his continued efforts to dismantle Obamacare.
The Democratic favorites look to be: Kelly Mazeski, who has worked in local government and has the backing of EMILY’s List and Illinois Rep. Jan Schakowsky, a member of the DCCC leadership team; Sean Casten, a clean-energy entrepreneur who has drawn support from the local climate crowd and a former environmental adviser in the Clinton administration; and Amanda Howland, an attorney who easily won the Democratic nomination in 2016, but who went on to lose to Roskam by 18 percentage points despite the district going for Hillary Clinton by 7 percentage points in November.
Both Mazeski and Casten have invested heavily in their own campaigns, giving them an edge in advertising. But given the crowded field is likely to split the vote, it’s difficult to handicap this one. Whoever does win, though, will enter as the underdog against Roskam, who has won his last three terms by an average of more than 20 percentage points.
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