The Slatest

The Left Finally Took Down Another Incumbent Democrat. What Can We Learn From It?

Newman smiles while walking toward the camera in a green coat decorated with campaign stickers.
Marie Newman arrives to vote in La Grange, Illinois, on March 20, 2018. Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters

With the major, major, major exception of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Bernie Sanders–inspired Democratic leftist movement’s attempts to knock out centrist incumbents by challenging them in primaries were unsuccessful in 2018. The trend continued on Super Tuesday, when 26-year-old Jessica Cisneros lost her high-profile race against Texas Rep. Henry Cuellar, a self-described “pro-business” Dem who has voted against abortion rights and gun control, by 4 points. With Sanders’ presidential campaign fading as well, it had begun to seem like the “establishment” might have, essentially, called the left’s bluff.

Until now! In Illinois, eight-term Rep. Dan Lipinski of the Chicago-area 3rd district appears to have lost his Tuesday primary against the Ocasio-Cortez–endorsed challenger Marie Newman, who currently leads him 47 percent to 45 percent with 99 percent of precincts reporting. The 3rd district is considered a “solid” to “safe” one for Democrats, and Hillary Clinton won it in 2016 by 15 points, which means Newman is likely to go on to win her general election in November and become a member of Congress in 2021.

What do we have here, as a trend from which to overextrapolate? The first thing that stands out is that Lipinski—despite being a former professor of political science—probably could not have set himself better to get primaried if he’d tried. The district, which stretches well out into the Chicago suburbs from the southwest corner of the city—Midway Airport—has growing Mexican American and Arab American populations, but Lipinski has behaved as if it were still the Reagan-loving Irish/Polish stronghold that it was when his father Bill represented it from 1983–2005. He voted against the Affordable Care Act and the 2010 DREAM Act, declined to endorse Barack Obama’s reelection, opposes raising the minimum wage to $15, and opposed abortion rights and marriage equality.

While the 3rd might not be a socially liberal district—it has a relatively low number of residents with college degrees, which generally corresponds with cultural conservatism—Lipinski’s record on abortion and gay rights helped Newman raise money and gain national support from mainstream groups like EMILY’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America. It might also be time to simply reclassify support for LGBTQ rights as a standard position even for conservative Democrats. After all, it was Joe Biden, king of the white ethnics, who supported gay marriage before Obama did. Lipinski did things that might have endeared him to constituents if this were still the era in which parties weren’t as strictly defined by their national brands—Reagan didn’t just win the Illinois 3rd, he got 64 percent of the vote there. Positioning yourself in opposition to AOC is one thing; positioning yourself in opposition to Obama is another.

And Newman, while forthright about supporting democratic socialist proposals like “Medicare for All” and the Green New Deal, also reads as more of a traditional elected Democrat than other leftist candidates have. She’s 55 rather than 25, has a background in advertising and corporate social responsibility work rather than activism, and pitched herself to voters as “a real Democrat who votes like a Democrat.” Sanders’ anti-establishment presidential campaign foundered in states in which voters feel loyal to the institutional Democratic Party even if they, for example, personally support single-payer health care. Newman simply insisted, successfully, that there is no tension in that identity.

Also, I don’t know how to put this politely, but in every picture I’ve ever seen of Lipinski, he looks like he’s in the middle of murdering someone. So that might have made a difference too.