Democrats are optimistic about their chances of kicking out GOP incumbents in 2018, but first a few sitting Democrats would like to kick out one of their own.
Marketing consultant Marie Newman is challenging Lipinski in the March 20 primary for the 3rd District. She’s already picked up the endorsement of New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s political action committee.
The endorsements from sitting Democrats, including two from Lipinski’s own delegation, lends credibility to the campaign of one of this cycle’s few serious primary challengers to an incumbent Democrat.
“It’s not easy to endorse a challenger over a colleague in the House of Representatives, especially when that colleague is a member of your party,” Gutiérrez said Wednesday at a sparsely attended press conference in a Capitol Hill townhouse.
“I think this strengthens the Democratic Party because it says to the Democratic Party we have a response in the age of Donald Trump,” added the congressman, who’s leaving Congress at the end of the term. “Primaries are about definition of a party. I want to define myself with Marie Newman, and I hope the Democratic Party does too.”
Schakowsky and Gutiérrez are both members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus. One of the most conservative members of the Democratic conference, Lipinski is one of three Democrats still in the House who voted against the 2010 health care law, although he has not supported GOP efforts to repeal the law. And he’s one of three House Democrats who still consistently votes against abortion rights.
While the abortion issue has gotten the most attention in this primary so far, Gutiérrez and Schakowsky made it clear their split with Lipinski has just as much to do with where he’s broken with his party on health care, immigration and same-sex marriage.
“The nation has moved forward. He would be all right in Congress in 1996,” Gutiérrez said, referencing the enactment of the Defense of Marriage Act that year.
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The abortion question
The contrast between Newman’s and Lipinski’s positions on abortion has helped resurface a debate that raged in the wake of the 2016 elections about whether Democrats who oppose abortion have a place in the party.
Newman has the backing of progressive organizations like the Human Rights Campaign, MoveOn.org, Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. NARAL Pro-Choice America launched a five-figure TV buy attacking Lipinski late last year for voting against the 2010 health care law and opposing abortion rights and background check and same-sex marriage legislation.
The pro-abortion rights group is launching digital ads this week comparing him to President Donald Trump since both are speaking at the March for Life on Friday.
Two major pro-abortion rights groups, though, have yet to step in for Newman: Planned Parenthood Action Fund and EMILY’s List. Newman said she met with both groups last summer. Neither group immediately responded to requests for comment about this race.
“They’re a little busy,” Newman said when asked why these groups haven’t endorsed her.
“I hope they take another look,” Gutiérrez said.
Schakowsky, who herself has been supported by EMILY’s List, deflected questions about why the group hasn’t gotten involved in this primary. She pointed to the network of progressive organizations that has already backed Newman and suggested that other outside organizations could follow as Newman proves her viability.
EMILY’s List wants to support candidates who can prove they can raise the money to mount viable campaigns, said one Democratic consultant who’s worked with the group.
“The thing everyone has to remember is they have to go to their donors and say, ‘Your contribution is going to put this one in play,’” the consultant said.
Newman’s campaign has been touting a mid-October poll it commissioned that suggested she could be in a position to beat Lipinski. After hearing what the campaign considered to be negative messages about Lipinski and Newman, Democratic primary voters preferred Newman, 39 to 34 percent.
But whether Newman will have the resources to communicate her message is still a question. (In the head-to-head matchup, Lipinski led Newman 49 to 18 percent.)
Newman said Wednesday her campaign has raised $600,000 to date. End-of-the-year fundraising reports are due to the FEC on Jan. 31. She had $98,000 in the bank at the end of the third quarter. Lipinski had $1.5 million.
As the Democratic consultant put it: “You can have a poll that says you take a dump truck to him and you’re five points up, but if you don’t put the dump truck on him ...”
And that’s where these members of Congress hope they can help.
“Quite frankly, one of the reasons for my endorsement is I’m hoping it will encourage some donors to decide that they would support Marie,” Schakowsky said.
The Lipinski legacy
Lipinski, an engineer and political scientist by training, has argued that his party needs anti-abortion candidates to win back more seats in Congress.
“We need to be a big tent part,” Lipinski said. “It’s unfortunate some want to make it a smaller party.”
Asked about his colleagues endorsing Newman, Lipinski said he wasn’t given any warning. Be he didn’t sound fazed — or surprised.
“What’s more important to me is to have 30 mayors in my district endorsing me today,” he said.
Lipinski said Schakowsky has been active against him in primaries before, albeit not publicly. “I’m glad she’s being forthright about it this time.”
And he pointed to his previous primary wins to argue he’s in line with his district. He said his campaign plans to do a primary poll “very soon.”
Defeating Lipinski will be a tall order, not least because of his last name. The seven-term congressman succeeded his father, who filed to run for re-election in 2004 but then announced during the August recess that he would retire.
Democrats in the district, including the elder Lipinski, selected the son to replace the father on the ballot. That means a Lipinski has been on the ballot in this area for nearly 36 years.
Lipinski made out well in the post-2010 Census redistricting, controlled by state House Democrats. Speaker Michael Madigan was a close ally of Lipinski’s father.
Like his father, Lipinski serves on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. His district runs along the southwest side of Chicago and includes major highways, airways, rail lines and the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The district backed Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary.
“He’s not where some in the Democratic Party are on social issues, but he’s very close to labor and has been good for labor,” one Democratic strategist said.
“If he’s talking about pocketbook issues, that wins,” the strategist added. The state AFL-CIO endorsed Lipinski earlier this month.
“This is old ward, old Chicago, grass-roots precinct captain organizations that still exist for him. They’re not unstoppable — they’re beatable — but you gotta have an army,” the other Democratic consultant said.
“You’ve gotta have a solid direct mail campaign and TV presence, and now you’re talking about a multimillion dollar campaign,” she added.
Newman says she’s going to have that, vowing to go on broadcast television and do direct mail before the March primary.