Marie Newman would not play along with the meta narrative, the headline summary that swept the nation late Tuesday that a pro-abortion rights challenger from suburban Chicago had unseated one of the last anti-abortion Democrats in Congress.
Yes, the factual skeleton is true. Newman, 55, a supporter of abortion rights from La Grange, narrowly beat staunch abortion foe U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski, 53, of Western Springs in the primary race for a House seat that has been in his family since 1983.
“I don’t think abortion was really a factor at all,” Newman told me in a phone interview Wednesday morning. “I mean, yes, it’s a very important issue. I believe in women’s rights. I trust women to make decisions on their reproductive health. But I don’t obsess over abortion like Dan does.”
Lipinski, who has represented the Southwest Side and southwest suburban 3rd Congressional District since he succeeded his father, Bill, in 2005, is a co-chair of the House Pro-Life Caucus. He’s voted against funding for embryonic stem cell research and for a federal ban on abortions after 20 weeks, and in January he was one of just two Democratic members of Congress who signed a brief with the U.S. Supreme Court arguing that the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling establishing abortion rights should be “reconsidered and, if appropriate, overruled.”
“He wanted to make this race just about abortion, as though I’m just a one-trick pony,” said Newman, who is almost certain to beat Republican nominee Mike Fricilone of Homer Glen in November given the overwhelmingly Democratic composition of the electorate. “But the truth is that we built a platform that’s in line with the changing values of this district. I ran on providing health care for all, empowering unions, promoting infrastructure and good-paying jobs, and working together to make sure everyone’s rights are respected.”
Indeed, the nearly 2,000-word issues page on Newman’s campaign website makes just one direct and one indirect mention of her support for a woman’s right to choose abortion.
But in a news conference Wednesday, Lipinski told reporters that campaign commercials highlighting the issue “loomed large” in his defeat. “The pressure in the Democratic Party on the life issue has never been as great as it is now,” he said. “To stand in solidarity with the vulnerable is to become vulnerable.”
His vulnerability was evident two years ago when Newman, a business consultant and anti-bullying activist making her first run for office, nearly beat him. He won by a 2,145-vote, 2.2 percentage-point margin.
Newman was a sore loser, famously refusing to concede on election night, saying “I would like Mr. Lipinski to have a very painful evening, so we are going to wait.” But although she was beaten, she was unbowed. In a matter of weeks after her loss, she said, she began volunteering for other campaigns in the district, phone-banking, canvassing and serving as a candidate surrogate. This allowed her to use her professional skills to learn how better to reach the voters who had just narrowly rejected her.
“I was convinced that the district was winnable for me,” she said. So in January 2019, she launched an exploratory campaign and began conducting a series of what turned out to be, by her count, 318 meet-and-greet sessions with area voters. Four months later she officially announced her second run against Lipinski, saying on Twitter, “We deserve a representative who will vote like a real Democrat in Congress — not someone who routinely sides with (President Donald) Trump and conservative interest groups over his own constituents.”
Lipinski is in many ways a DINO — Democrat in Name Only — not just because of an anti-abortion stance that, as he said, is increasingly rare in the party, but also for his support of the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, his opposition to the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) and his refusal to endorse Democratic President Barack Obama’s reelection bid in 2012. Yet the blue-collar district has a conservative streak as well, and its voters elected him to eight terms.
The district still has that streak. Newman’s victory was hardly resounding. Her winning margin Tuesday looks as though it’ll be roughly as narrow as her losing margin in 2018 — a couple thousand votes, a bit more than 2% of the total. The presence on the ballot of two other candidates who took a combined 8% of the vote resulted in Newman getting a slightly lower percentage in victory in 2020 (48.2%) than she got in defeat in 2018 (48.9%). Lipinski’s support fell by more than 5 percentage points from 2018.
Given the breadth of Newman’s progressive platform and the endorsement nods she got from an eye-catching array of liberal organizations and prominent political figures — including Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, U.S. Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Bernie Sanders of Vermont as well as U.S. Reps. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, Pramila Jayapal of Washington and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York — it’s hard to know how much emphasis to place on one issue.
The surest headline is also the best news: The 3rd District will likely soon have a representative who will vote like a real Democrat in Congress.