Why an Anti-Abortion Advocacy Group Went All-In for an Illinois Democrat

An anti-abortion canvasser campaigns for Democrat Dan Lipinski in Illinois.
An anti-abortion canvasser campaigns for Democrat Dan Lipinski in Illinois.
Susan B. Anthony List/Facebook

Rep. Dan Lipinski, one of the few anti-abortion Democrats in Congress, narrowly defeated a political newbie in the Illinois primary on Tuesday night, dashing the hopes of progressives who believe the seven-term congressman is too conservative for the modern-day Democratic Party. Lipinski’s opponent, Marie Newman, had the endorsement of several major unions, reproductive rights groups, and big-name Democrats (Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders), while the incumbent could barely get his own colleagues to mutter their support. But Lipinski still won, outpacing Newman by about 2.5 percentage points.

He may owe his victory, in part, to Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion advocacy group that made a six-figure investment in Lipinski before Election Day. The organization marshaled 70 canvassers—staff members and college-student volunteers—to knock on the doors of 17,000 homes where voters tagged as anti-choice Democrats live. Susan B. Anthony List also bought Facebook ads claiming that “Marie Newman supports painful late-term abortions of healthy babies—paid for by taxpayers!” and sent out direct mail that encouraged voters to “Imagine someone killing a 7-pound baby for any reason, or no reason at all.” That mailer also framed the issue with left-leaning rhetoric to appeal to Democratic voters. “[Lipinski] believes the human rights championed by Democrats should be extended to unborn babies,” it said.

Though Susan B. Anthony List’s endorsement history heavily favors Republicans, it is a nonpartisan group, and Lipinski is one of its longstanding favorites. “Dan Lipinski is a pro-life hero of legendary courage and integrity,” said president Marjorie Dannenfelser in a statement after he won. “He’s not just a pro-life vote in Congress. He is a leader on this issue.” For a single-issue advocacy group, Lipinski is as reliable as they come: He co-chairs the Congressional Pro-Life Caucus, speaks at anti-abortion rallies, and regularly sponsors legislation that seeks to restrict or roll back access to women’s health care.

The organization’s longtime love for Lipinski only intensified in 2010, when he voted against the Affordable Care Act. Back then, a coalition of anti-abortion Democrats, led by Bart Stupak, held out against the bill because it allowed people to use federal subsidies to purchase private insurance plans that cover abortion care. Many of them, including Stupak himself, ended up making a compromise with Barack Obama to get the bill through. Lipinski didn’t. He said the implications for abortion funding were part of his decision to oppose the bill, though he also called it “financially unsustainable.” His vote on the ACA became a major sticking point among the prominent Democrats who turned against him this election cycle, and a major rallying cry for anti-abortion advocates who came to his aid.

“His story, and the story of the Affordable Care Act—the growth of SBA has been really intertwined with the whole Affordable Care Act fight,” said Susan B. Anthony List’s communications director, Mallory Quigley, of Lipinski. The group got a lot of press for campaigning against the anti-abortion Democrats in Congress who voted for the ACA; Stupak was set to accept a “Defender of Life” award at a Susan B. Anthony List gala in 2010, but was cut three days before the event due to his change of heart on the bill. “Any representative, including Rep. Stupak, who votes for this healthcare bill can no longer call themselves pro-life,” said Dannenfelser at the time, promising that her organization would never again support any candidate who helped pass the ACA, even if their opponents were pro-choice.

“We told [Lipinski] then that we would always be there to fight for him if he ever came under fire,” Quigley said in a video of the organization’s canvassing efforts. This was his first highly contested primary, and only his second primary ever. As proof that its loyalty can last at least as long as its grudges, Susan B. Anthony List kept its promise.

The group will continue to support Lipinski over his Republican opponent, Arthur Jones, a Nazi and Holocaust denier. Quigley hopes Lipinski will embolden other Democrats to vote against abortion rights—without a strong anti-abortion voice in the party, she believes, it will be much harder to get any Democratic legislators to vote the way Susan B. Anthony List wants them to. “We just think it’s important that the issue remains bipartisan,” she said. “[Lipinski] is the model for how we want pro-life Democrats to act in Congress, to choose pro-life principles over party when those two things clash. And he’s really the only one that’s been a consistent pro-life vote.”