Marie Newman is hoping to emulate 2018 success of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in an election year marked by progressive enthusiasm, writes Clark Mindock
Just to the southwest of Chicago, in a congressional district that stretches from the city like a sunray, a battle over the soul of Democratic politics is taking shape.
Less than two years after New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the nation with a surprising primary victory over an entrenched and powerful Democratic congressman, Marie Newman is hoping to emulate her success in 2020 by building “an army” of thousands of volunteers and workers keen on ousting their own Democratic incumbent with deep roots in the community, Dan Lipinski.
It’s a force that Ms Newman hopes will help her to take on a congressman in the district who is often described as one of the most conservative Democrats in Washington — a reputation maintained through his resistance to popular Democrat healthcare policies, and opposition to other positions like abortion rights, in spite of his heavily Democratic district.
In many respects, it’s a fight that illustrates the challenges facing progressives seeking to steer the party left in a primary election defined between centrist and progressive candidates. And, for Ms Newman, it’s one that has meant finding a way forward even as the powerful Democratic Party has blacklisted her campaign in favour of a man who just last week joined Republicans in calling for the repeal of Roe v Wade.
“He is usually listed as the most conservative member of the Democratic Party. And, he is voting against the district’s interests at every turn, literally,” Ms Newman, whose campaign has essentially been ostracised by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, told The Independent.
Mr Lipinski has been in office since 2005, and has maintained a relatively conservative profile in his time since taking office, which he and his supporters have referred to as “common sense leadership” in campaign gear. Before that, it was his dad, Bill Lipinski, who held the district beginning in 1983.
In Washington, the younger Lipinski’s “common sense” approach has meant votes that seem, in the age of a seemingly ascendant progressive wing, almost absurdly out of line with contemporary Democratic politics.
On healthcare, the congressman memorably voted against the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the signature legislative achievement of Barack Obama that many Democrats celebrate, even as they have moved even further left on the issue. He has previously rejected calls for a federal $15 minimum wage, a policy he doubled down on in 2018 as he faced his first big challenge from Ms Newman. And on immigration, he has often focused more on border security than providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants – a history his opponents point to as an indication Mr Lipinski is more interested in helping Mr Trump with his controversial border wall than helping vulnerable immigrants.
In the past three years, he has managed to vote for policies favoured by the president more than most Democrats in the House, according to ongoing analysis by FiveThirtyEight.
But, among the issues swirling in the campaign, perhaps the most viscerally and emotionally evocative where Mr Lipinski may find himself at odds with his party may be abortion. The congressman is one of the last remaining pro-life Democrats, a position he doubled down on last week by signing his name to an amicus brief to the new conservative majority on the Supreme Court urging it to reconsider abortion protections.
It’s on that last point, the letter, that even Democrats who support so-called big-tent parties that can welcome a diverse range of positions – moderate and progressive – have found the congressman to be wading into troubled waters.
“I am a big fan of the idea that we as Democrats need to be a big-tent party where different view points are welcome. And I for one have had no problem with some of the votes he has cast in the past, because he is just trying to represent his constituents,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist who previously held leadership roles for former Senate majority leader Harry Reid and former senator Ted Kennedy, in an email. “But, signing on to that letter to the Supreme Court was the final straw for me and I honestly don’t care if we lose the seat or not.”
Mr Lipinski’s campaign told The Independent that his record had largely been taken out of context, and cited the Cook Partisan Voting Index of districts, which ranks the district he represents as a D+6 — meaning it is six points more Democratic than the national average, although it falls behind 152 districts in that tally with higher ratings.
The campaign also indicated that he currently takes positions that would provide a pathway to citizenship to undocumented immigrants, and helped introduce and pass the Dream and Promise Act that would provide such a pathway last year. He also has co-sponsored a minimum wage bill to raise the federal level to $15 by 2024 (he previously wanted the standard to be $12 an hour). And the campaign claimed that while Mr Lipinski voted against the ACA originally “because the bill had serious flaws”, he has since joined his party to fight back against Republican efforts to repeal the landmark bill.
“To be clear, Dan Lipinski has voted with his party 87 per cent of the time throughout his tenure in congress, according to Congressional Quarterly,” spokesperson Sally Daly said in an email. “He’s a Democrat who isn’t afraid to roll his sleeves up and work with colleagues on the other side to get things done. Voters and community leaders appreciate that, which is why he has the endorsements of the vast majority of elected officials in the district — 28 mayors, with additional municipal, community and union support in the pipeline.”
Mr Lipinski’s current positions may reflect an evolution for the congressman, but on immigration and minimum wage the changes came as a progressive tide was swelling in the district and, perhaps, across the nation. His evolution on the Dream and Promise Act came a year after Bernie Sanders won the district against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary by eight points (Ms Clinton won the district by 16 points in the general election against Mr Trump). His position on minimum wage flipped only after Ms Newman mounted her progressive challenge to him in 2018. And the ACA, which was generally disliked by the American public writ-large during the Obama administration, has always been beloved by Democratic voters, with over 70 per cent support among members in the party – even as many in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary are campaigning to replace the system with the more robust Medicare for All.
When it comes to abortion, Ms Daly said that “it’s worth noting that a majority of Americans oppose taxpayer funding of abortion, which Ms Newman ardently supports”.
It’s true that Mr Lipinski has repeatedly supported legislation or policies banning that funding during his time in congress and has frequently promoted his opposition to taxpayer funding of abortion through his congressional office’s website. As recently as 2017, Mr Lipinski has co-sponsored bills with titles such as the No Taxpayer Funding for Abortion and Abortion Insurance Full Disclosure Act of 2017.
It’s also true that the general population of America leans against federal funding for abortions.
A 2017 Marist poll found that 60 per cent of Americans do not approve of tax money being used for abortions (compared with 36 per cent who approve), and a 2019 poll by Morning Consult asking about the Hyde amendment – the actual ban on taxpayer funds going towards abortions – found that more people supported a ban (49 per cent) than were in favour of that use (32 per cent). Among Democrats though, support for taxpayer-funded abortions may be more energising of an issue, especially in an election cycle that follows repeated attacks by conservatives on abortion in general. In the Marist poll, 51 per cent said they support tax money being used for abortions compared with 43 per cent who said otherwise. In the Morning Consult poll, 43 per cent opposed a ban and 37 per cent supported taxpayer money being used.
“There are people who are pro-life, and there are people who are pro-choice,” Mr Lipinski responded to Vox in June, when that news outlet pointed out the overwhelming support for abortion rights in the Democratic Party. He provided no further details, and instead said he was focusing on “kitchen sink” issues.
The race in Illinois’ third congressional district is likely to be one of the most competitive Democratic primaries in 2020, with Ms Newman mounting her second challenge in a row after losing to Mr Lipinski by less than two percentage points two years ago.
In the short time since that loss, Ms Newman said she has learned quite a bit about campaigning by volunteering with local campaigns throughout her district. She’s built a coalition of progressive support since then, and a group of as many as 6,000 volunteers whom she refers to not infrequently as “an army”.
Among her supporters are Ms Ocasio-Cortez – who made Ms Newman her first incumbent-challenging endorsement – the Justice Democrats group that helped the New York Democrat in 2018, as well as leading candidates for the Democrat presidential nomination Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
But Ms Newman has still been forced to face some stiff road blocks. Among them are rules imposed by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) – the powerful, national arm overseeing House races for the Democratic Party – in early 2019, which warn political vendors that the official election arm of the party won’t do business with folks who help candidates challenging incumbents.
The DCCC has said the rules were imposed to help protect its sitting members, and that loyalty is the best way to keep Democrats in control of the House. But the measures have been criticised by people like Ms Ocasio-Cortez, and other progressives who call it divisive politics that puts a finger on the scales of democracy.
“We reject the DCCC’s attempt to hoard power, which will only serve to keep that talent pool – and congress itself – disproportionately white and male,” said Maria Urbina, the national political director of progressive group the Indivisible Project, in a statement after the policy was made public in April. “Incumbents who engage fully with their constituents shouldn’t fear primaries and shouldn’t rely on the national institutions like the DCCC to suppress challenges before voters ever have a say.”
For Ms Newman, the policy has meant at least four political consultants leaving her campaign in April, and an estimated $100,000 (£76,300) in costs to try to fill in the blanks created by the blacklist.
“We lost several campaign consultants, and it’s not their fault – they have businesses to run and the DCCC threatened them, quite frankly, to the point where they wouldn’t have a business left if they worked on my campaign,” she said.
She continued: “I’m not mad at the consultants at all, but it put us in a predicament. I had to sign others quickly, and then it got to the point where the DCCC kept on threatening people that I was talking to so where we landed was that we finally found some folks.”
The DCCC did not respond to a request for comment regarding the policy.
But the timing of Ms Newman’s race may prove more consequential than that rule by the DCCC.
In a year marked by progressive enthusiasm, it is hard to overstate how valuable endorsements from prominent national politicians like Ms Ocasio-Cortez, Mr Sanders and Ms Warren are. Other endorsements have flowed in, too, including from pro-choice groups Emily’s List and Naral.
Ms Newman credits the people in her district, though, and the knowledge she gained while volunteering on roughly 12 local races in her district just after her loss in 2018, which she said has helped her to reorient her strategy in 2020 to focus on the traditional methods of door knocking and phone banking.
And while Ms Newman favours progressive policies like Medicare for All, replacing ICE, and taking big money out of politics, she pointedly refused to specifically align herself with the prominent politicians behind her campaign, telling The Independent she views political labels as “stupid”.
“We have spent the year in between the campaigns building an enormous field,” she said. “It’s an army, and we’re running this race together as a team.”