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A conservative Democrat in Illinois feels the ire of his liberal base

Marie Newman speaks with supporters at a campaign event in LaGrange, Ill. Newman is challenging Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski in the 3rd Congressional District. The primary is March 20.
Marie Newman speaks with supporters at a campaign event in LaGrange, Ill. Newman is challenging Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski in the 3rd Congressional District. The primary is March 20. (Sara Burnett/AP)

PALOS HILLS, Ill. — After 30 minutes of hissing and heckling — and cheers for his opponent — Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) had heard enough. After Marie Newman, the liberal activist running against him, attacked him for not favoring a “clean” deal that would let undocumented immigrants stay in the country, he let loose.

“She claims they’re going to sit down and magically make it happen,” Lipinski said at a candidate event here this month. “Look, the Freedom Caucus is a major problem. The tea party is a major problem. Having a tea party of the left that makes promises about what’s going to magically happen — it’s not going to work. It’s a fantasy.”

The argument didn’t appear to move anyone in the room. Hundreds had packed into the only forum before the primary election on March 20. It was a sign of just how much trouble Lipinski could be in — and, depending on the vote’s outcome, a sign of how much less tolerant the Democratic base has grown of candidates who stray from liberal orthodoxy.

“I really do agree with Marie more than him, on the issues,” said Susan McNulty, 76, a retiree who lives in nearby Lemont. “I don’t think he’s a bad person. I just disagree with him.”

Lipinski, one of the last antiabortion Democrats in the House, and one of only a few to oppose the Affordable Care Act, was confronting many of the voters who want to oust him. Working with them are a number of liberal groups that have tried and failed to beat Lipinski in the past, but that are now piling into his suburban Chicago district, trying not just to replace him, but also to send a message about who should and shouldn’t represent the Democratic Party.

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“He doesn’t have true Democratic values, and his record proves it,” Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America PAC, said in a recent email to donors. “This isn’t some deep-red district. This district is solid blue. The seat has been held by a Democrat for 58 out of the last 60 years. Yet Lipinski votes more like a right-wing Republican.”

For 35 of those years, the district has been represented by someone named “Lipinski.” In 1982, Bill Lipinski, a Chicago alderman at the time, ousted a Democratic incumbent to take over the working class, suburban district. Twenty-two years later, Lipinski retired and local Democrats handed the nomination to his son Dan. It was a controversial move, but one that voters seemed to validate two years later by helping the younger Lipinski through a bitter primary. In 2008 and 2012, progressives tried and failed to recruit a challenger.

Then came the “resistance.” Newman, a former advertising executive who became an anti-bullying and pro-gun-control advocate, had been approached to run for lower offices; after the 2016 election, she took “a deep data dive” into the district and came out convinced that she could win. Hillary Clinton won here by 15 points. Bernie Sanders had carried the district in the primary, and Newman supported him.

“We have the Lipinski dynasty, supported by the Chicago machine, so it’s like pushing a boulder up a hill,” she said. “But when people learn how he’s voted, his unfavorables are in the 70s.”

For months, Democrats looked at Newman and saw yet another candidate who would probably come up short. Lipinski ended 2017 with $1.7 million to spend; Newman ended it with $237,000. The Democrats who run nearly every office in the district endorsed Lipinski, as did the AFL-CIO. The bitterly contested primary for governor promised that rank-and-file Democrats, familiar with the Lipinski brand, would be turning out on March 20.

That changed last month, after local Democrats saw polling that found Newman gaining on the incumbent. On Jan. 17, two of Lipinski’s liberal colleagues, Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) and Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), endorsed Newman at a news conference in Washington. Gutierrez ripped into Lipinski for opposing the Dream Act, which would provide protections for many young undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children; Schakowsky asked why Chicago’s blue suburbs still had an antiabortion congressman.

“I assure you that this district is overwhelmingly pro-choice,” Schakowsky said.

“The nation has moved forward,” Gutierrez said. “He would be all right in Congress in 1996.”

In the following weeks, Newman became a bona fide liberal cause. The state branch of the Service Employees International Union backed her, as did Emily’s List, which liberals had criticized for not endorsing Newman sooner. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) scheduled a fundraiser for Newman; Planned Parenthood jumped in against a congressman who “time and time again tried to take away women’s access to health care.”

Lipinski has responded by casting himself as a bulwark against radicalism — a challenger of the “status quo,” as he said several times Wednesday night. He’d spoken at the antiabortion March for Life in Washington in the past, but he skipped it this year, saying in a statement that President Trump’s appearance there risked putting him in a “potentially morally compromised situation.”

As recently as 2016, he’d backed a Republican version of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, designed to liberate businesses from birth control and some gay rights mandates; in an interview Wednesday night, he said he didn’t see a need for that bill now.

“Like many issues in Washington, sometimes it’s used for the wrong purposes,” he said.

Newman’s response was to hammer Lipinski over the record he’d made before the primary. Her campaign literature lists every conservative position Lipinski has taken; her first TV ad merged a picture of the congressman with the picture of the president, whose support in the district is thin.

“You can’t fight Trump when you agree with him,” says the ad’s narrator. “It’s time for Daniel Lipinski to go.”

This month, Newman became the first candidate for any office endorsed by Indivisible groups, the grass-roots organizations founded after the 2016 election to more effectively lobby Congress.

The three Indivisible chapters in the district, all of which had held meetings with Newman, sent a SurveyMonkey poll to their 2,000-odd members. Ninety percent of members said they wanted to make an endorsement; of that number, 100 percent said they should endorse Newman.

“I voted a straight ticket for a lot of years, and I made assumptions about what he stood for as a Democrat,” said Lara Taylor, an organizer with Indivisible La Grange. “I’m ashamed of that. I was shocked to learn how anti-choice he was. Those were new revelations for me, for a lot of us, when we started organizing.”

The Indivisible endorsements added to what Newman had been seeing — a stream of new activists in her office and canvassers trying to raise awareness of her campaign. Newman supporters clearly outnumbered supporters of Lipinski at the forum, which had been organized by the League of Women Voters at a college in the district. Those who arrived early sat at tables, working on their neighbors to switch from the incumbent to the insurgent.

“I’m worried about losing the seat,” said Lipinski supporter Dorothy Baglin, 81, as a Newman supporter handed her literature. “I’m worried because of those Trump people, who’ve been coming out of the woodwork.”

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Newman supporters had a ready answer for that worry — not only was the district blue, but it also was functionally uncontested. Illinois Republicans, disastrously, had failed to recruit their own candidate, leaving the nomination to a local neo-Nazi activist named Art Jones. Before the forum, the Illinois Republican Party passed a resolution urging voters to vote in their primary but leave the congressional ballot line blank.

Some Lipinski supporters are trying to raise the specter of disaster for another reason. Catholic Vote, a decade-old conservative nonprofit group, sent representatives to the forum this month to talk about its church-driven voter push and the risk of ousting a pro-life Democrat. The antiabortion Susan B. Anthony List, which largely supports Republicans, has bundled more than $40,000 for Lipinski and readied a voter persuasion campaign to brand Newman as a pro-abortion extremist.

“It would be a tremendous loss for the pro-life movement if Dan loses,” said Billy Valentine, a vice president at the SBA List. “Frankly, it would be a loss to the Democratic Party — even Nancy Pelosi has said that the reason Donald Trump is president is that he was able to rally pro-lifers. If the pro-abortion lobby takes out Lipinski, they’re saying to potential candidates, even if you get elected, we’re going to take you out.”

Lipinski, too, has warned that a defeat for him would weaken his party. “It’s terrible for the Democratic Party,” he said. “We’re down more than a thousand elected officials around the country since 2010. Democrats need to have a big tent; when we’re so far down, we can’t be kicking people out of the party. We can’t rely on voters being upset with Donald Trump to put us back into power.”

Newman scoffed at the idea that her victory would amount to a party “purge.” Voters wanted universal Medicare, they wanted Planned Parenthood to be funded and they wanted a $15 minimum wage.

“Everybody’s got to take a deep breath,” Newman said. “In this district, there are true-blue Democrats who have progressive values. I’m running with the district. He’s running against it.”

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