A RACE THAT was considered a bellwether of the Democratic Party’s future, the contest between U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski and Marie Newman for the Democratic nomination to represent Illinois’s 3rd Congressional District went, fittingly, late into the night without a clear winner.
Finally, with 96 percent of the precincts counted by early Wednesday, The Associated Press called the race for Lipinski, who had a lead of about 1,600 votes out of the roughly 90,000 that were cast.
On Tuesday morning, Politico summed up Washington’s view of the heated primary in a story with the subhead, “Is there still room in the Democratic Party for a Blue Dog who opposes abortion rights?“
The race was indeed a signal of where the party is headed, but the question Politico posed is the wrong one for this particular district. It’s such a comfortably Democratic seat that Lipinski didn’t face an opponent in the 2016 general election. Now that he’s won the primary, he’ll face a fringe candidate with a neo-Nazi past in the 2018 general. Democrat Hillary Clinton easily carried the district two years ago, and Bernie Sanders beat Clinton in the primary there.
Questions about the future of the party gained new momentum after Conor Lamb’s upset victory in last week’s special election, which took place in a deeply conservative western Pennsylvania district; centrist Democrats argued that his win demonstrated that the true path was through moderation. They cited Lamb’s embrace of gun culture; his personal, but not political, opposition to abortion; and his unwillingness to back single-payer health care. But the lesson only goes so far: Even though Lamb ran in a far more conservative district than did Lipinski, the former ran a far more progressive campaign — and still won.
So a more precise question might be: Is there still room in a solidly Democratic district for a Blue Dog who opposes abortion rights, LGBT rights, immigrants’ rights, a $15 minimum wage, and who voted against the Affordable Care Act?
And the answer, at least in Illinois’s 3rd District, is barely — for now.
The race also answered a different question, one that is perhaps more relevant to the future of the party: Can the progressive Democrats mount a powerful enough challenge to entrenched, well-funded incumbents that they can threaten the status quo?
The answer to that question, clearly, is yes. Lipinski held on, but he got the kind of political scare that no incumbent wants. Newman, taking the stage at her election night party at Marz Taproom in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood, declined to concede the race, but said that whatever happens, voters had shocked Lipinski into more progressive positions. “No matter what happens tomorrow, we have moved him on immigration, we have moved him on healthcare. I scared the crap out of him on $12 vs. $15” — a reference to their debate over the minimum wage. She continued, “There’s many things we can move him on more, so let’s be clear. The fight is not over. It’s not done.”
Just how present that threat was became clear about two hours after the polls closed, as vote counts showed Newman, who’d been trailing by two to three points all night, surging ahead. At Marz Taproom, volunteers and staffers hugged each other, with one screaming, “I can’t believe this is happening!”
Newman’s slight lead lasted only a few minutes — apparently the result of a tabulation error — before Lipinski crawled back on top for the rest of the night.