Two years ago, on the night of the Illinois Democratic primary, the congressional candidate Marie Newman refused to concede to the incumbent, Representative Dan Lipinski, although she found herself more than two thousand votes behind. She admitted defeat the next day and spent the next forty-eight hours studying what had gone wrong, precinct by frustrating precinct, in a district that stretches from Chicago’s South Side into the suburbs. “Not only was I not in enough places, but I didn’t have enough of a field program,” she said later. “I didn’t understand the importance of field. I didn’t invest in it.”
She calculated that another percentage point in the southwest suburbs, and another five hundred votes here and there in the city, would have meant victory. Ten months later, in January, 2019, Newman charged back into the fray, casting herself as a progressive champion against Lipinski, who once voted against the Affordable Care Act, declined to endorse Barack Obama for reëlection in 2012, and remains one of a few congressional Democrats who oppose abortion rights. Newman, a fifty-five-year-old management consultant who announced her support for Medicare for All, drew support from some of the country’s most prominent progressive politicians, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders, and also from a coalition of groups determined to pull the Democratic Party to the left. She recruited five paid field staff and around four hundred volunteers, who knocked on more than a hundred and twelve thousand doors in Illinois’ Third District. The strategy paid off. On March 17th, Newman found herself about twenty-four hundred votes ahead of Lipinski. This time, it was Lipinski who waited until the next day to concede, giving up the seat he has held for fifteen years, and that his father held for twenty-two years before that.
It is a sign of the different faces presented by the Democratic Party this year that Newman, Joe Biden, and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx could emerge as the big winners in Illinois. Biden finished twenty-three points ahead of Sanders, who lost only narrowly to Hillary Clinton four years ago. Foxx, a reformer under pressure for her handling of the criminal case against the actor Jussie Smollett, faced a torrent of negative ads, yet won more than fifty per cent of the vote against three challengers. Newman did not take sides in the Democratic Presidential primary. When I asked her about that this month, she said, “I haven’t had time to reflect and I have a primary coming up, and I’m really focussed on the campaign. And those are all political answers. But the real answer is I don’t know. I don’t know how I feel.”
On a sunny Sunday, March 1st, more than a hundred people gathered at the Polo Inn, in Bridgeport, on Chicago’s South Side, to hold a rally for Newman. Members of National Nurses United were wearing red shirts that said “Bernie 2020.” Someone spooned arroz con leche into paper cups. Onstage, Newman was joined by Jan Schakowsky and Pramila Jayapal, Democratic members of Congress who had endorsed her over their colleague, Lipinski. “He has no plan for health care. He voted against and then doubled down against the Affordable Care Act,” Schakowsky said, as the audience booed on cue. Newman urged her supporters to tell voters that Medicare for All is “a tried and true, practical program.” She asked them to be kind, respectful, and persuasive.
Afterward, I caught up with Jayapal, who is the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Sanders’s national health-policy chair. She had come from Omaha, where she appeared at an event [for Kara Eastman, a Medicare for All supporter who is competing in the Democratic primary to represent Nebraska’s Second District, on May 12th. Jayapal makes no apologies for fueling intra-party competition. Incumbents, as she sees it, don’t deserve to keep their seats “just by the fact that your father had them, or the fact that you had them for a long time, or the fact that you’re a Democrat. We should be able to have a Democratic-primary system where people fight it out.” Another favorite of Jayapal’s was Jessica Cisneros, a twenty-six-year-old recent law-school graduate who challenged Henry Cuellar, an eight-term, anti-abortion incumbent, in South Texas. Cisneros came closer than expected in the March 3rd primary, losing by about twenty-seven hundred votes, out of the nearly seventy-five thousand that were cast.
Jayapal describes Lipinski’s approach as “murky moderation” and argues that the Democratic Party needs to go bigger in offering solutions on income inequality, health care, education, immigration, and climate change. If the Party does not solve such issues, she said, “We will have another Donald Trump, because people are so angry. They’re so frustrated by the lack of opportunity and the suffering. We have to start paying attention to how we expand our base and our electorate and speak to people who really believe that Republican-lite is not inspiring. Nobody wins big on small ideas.”
Newman’s renewed challenge to Lipinski exposed a divide between the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and some of Newman’s backers. Last year, the D.C.C.C. declared that it would not do business with any campaign consultants or venders working for candidates who waged primary battles against Democratic incumbents. Newman said she lost several consultants after the announcement. Cheri Bustos, a member of Congress from Illinois and the D.C.C.C. chair, enforced the policy, arguing that Democrats need to conserve their resources for fights against Republicans. Yet, she also cancelled an appearance at a Lipinski fundraiser, indicating that his position on abortion was her main concern. (Newman told me that Bustos called to congratulate her on her victory: “We both said, Yeah, that’s behind us—let’s go rock and roll.”)
Arlinda Bajrami, a thirty-year-old who grew up in the Chicago suburbs, left Newman’s rally and made her way to a Bridgeport neighborhood in the shadow of the White Sox stadium. For decades, this was the home turf of the Chicago machine, run from Richard J. Daley’s brick bungalow on South Lowe Avenue. Daley and his son, Richard M. Daley, won a dozen mayoral elections between them. It was the elder Daley who appointed Lipinski’s father to a job as Twenty-Third Ward committeeman, in 1975. In a reminder of roots running deep, the neighborhood was dotted with blue-and-white signs: “11th Ward Notice. Pet Owners: Please clean up after your pets or pay up to $500.” The signs were sponsored by Cook County Commissioner John P. Daley, Richard J. Daley’s son, and Chicago Alderman Patrick Daley Thompson, his grandson.
Just three weeks earlier, Bajrami had returned from Arizona, where she spent almost three years as an environmental organizer for Mi Familia Vota, a nonprofit that seeks to strengthen Latino political power. Determined to continue her work, she contacted a friend in the Newman campaign and signed up as a volunteer. Navigating with the help of a canvassing app, Bajrami knocked on doors in hopes of persuading, and turning out, voters. Daniel Kallio, an attorney in the Illinois attorney general’s office, needed no sales pitch. “Count on two votes,” he told her. “Dan Lipinski is just a dinosaur. That’s it, really.” Well-versed on Lipinski’s record, Kallio said it was not a close call: “He’s about the establishment, and we’re both young voters.” When it comes to the Presidential race, though, Kallio seemed to be leaning toward Biden, whom he described as “the not-upset-the-apple-cart guy.”
Bajrami is a Sanders supporter, although she did ask herself, when Warren was in the race, whether the country needed yet another male President. “I realized my values aligned more with Bernie’s,” she said. “It’s time for a revolution already. I just don’t think capitalism is sustainable, especially if you’re talking about environmental impacts. I just feel like socialism is more holistic. It’s about distributing power back to the people.” She thinks Newman over Lipinski is an easy choice. “I don’t think he aligns well with the Democratic Party. Things are changing. We have to keep up with these progressive values.”
On a weekday night soon after, a passel of Newman supporters, a generation older, gathered at a North Side home to hear from the candidate and add to her coffers. They were joined by Emily Cain, the executive director of EMILY’s List, which works to elect pro-choice women. She spoke of the $1.4 million being spent to defeat Lipinski by a coalition that includes WOMEN VOTE! (the independent spending arm of EMILY’s List), Indivisible, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood Votes, the Service Employees International Union, and the Illinois Federation of Teachers. She said that Lipinski “stands for all of the things that drive our country backward.” Among Lipinski’s financial backers was the Susan B. Anthony List, which aims to end abortions.
As guests sipped wine and chatted, Cain explained the decision to target Lipinski, who was one of two Democrats who recently joined more than two hundred Republican senators and representatives in asking the Supreme Court to uphold a Louisiana law likely to restrict abortions, and to consider overturning Roe v. Wade. Lipinski’s opposition to abortion is “unconscionable” she said, when a woman’s right to choose is facing its gravest threat since the 1973 ruling itself. “You need to be sure you have a Congress that is ready to hold the line.”
Newman knows that she draws significant support, and much of her national attention, from pro-choice voters. But in a district with high concentrations of working-class voters, many of whom oppose abortion, she was careful during the campaign to discuss a basket of issues that she calls “everybody’s everyday.” Given that she had been campaigning full-time, by her own account, since January, 2019, I asked what she was hearing from voters. “It’s crystal clear,” she said, speaking rapid-fire. “Health care is the number-one issue. Immigration. Income inequality. The sub-issues are paid leave, raising wages, empowering unions, universal child care. The fourth issue is gun safety and gun reform.”
I wondered how much she was hearing about Trump, and how much she talked about him. In the nearby Fourteenth District, Lauren Underwood, a first-term Democrat, is seeking reëlection in a Republican-leaning district without trying to make the President much of an issue, although she did vote for his impeachment. (As did Lipinski.) Newman said that, when she was canvassing, she liked to ask open-ended questions, often starting with “What’s bothering you?” At least a third of the time, she said, the answer was, “ ‘Can we get rid of Trump?’ And I’m, like, ‘I’m working on it, baby!’ The second thing they’ll say is ‘Health care.’ The third thing they’ll say is ‘Everything.’ ”
Among more moderate voters, Newman’s endorsements of Medicare for All and the Green New Deal gave Lipinski his richest fodder. He billed himself as “our commonsense congressman” and blasted Newman as too radical for the district. One of his ads referred to her “hare-brained health-care scheme.” Another declared, “We just can’t afford you, Marie!” Lipinski, fifty-three, often smiles when he talks and he gets plenty of hugs from supporters. But he can be biting when discussing Newman. He said that she doesn’t understand the issues, but “just jumps on slogans, like Medicare for All. As we’ve seen in the Presidential race, there’s been an understanding amongst Democrats that that is not the way to go.” He said that progressive leaders who endorsed Newman, including Warren, Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker, had portrayed him as more conservative than he really is. He told me, “Perhaps they just don’t understand someone who can take the positions I take, because they have a simplistic view of the world.”
Plenty of Lipinski’s constituents align with him on abortion. This was evident on March 8th, at the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade in Tinley Park, a southwest suburb, where Lipinski, wearing a dark green cable-knit sweater with a gold cross pinned to his chest, passed out fistfuls of Dum Dum lollipops to children along the route. “Lipinski strong!” said Karen Bertucci, an administrator at Loyola University Chicago, after he passed by. I asked her about Newman. “Who?” she laughed. “I don’t even know who she is.” Except she did, of course, and she knew that the issue that most dramatically divided the candidates was abortion. “It’s killing,” she said of the procedure. J. J. Balonek, a train conductor and union leader, took a selfie with Lipinski. He said that the congressman delivers for his district and is “not a showboater.” He sees the challenge to Lipinski as a sign of trouble. “The Democratic Party always says it’s a big-tent party and they don’t have room for a pro-life candidate. That’s going to hurt them in the long term.”
On March 18, after congratulating Newman on her victory, Lipinski lamented the “pressure” in the Democratic Party to support abortion rights, an issue that he said “loomed especially large” in the race. He said, “I was pilloried in millions of dollars of TV ads and mailers. Because of this, I was shunned by many of my colleagues and other Democratic Party members and operators. I was shunned because of my pro-life stance.”
During the campaign, Newman called Lipinski “a true Republican” and said, “I’m running with the district, and Dan is running against the district.” Given that Lipinski won about forty-five per cent of the Democratic primary vote, it remains unclear just how accurate Newman’s assessment was. Although the district is considered a safe Democratic seat, Republicans are likely to mobilize against her in November. When I spoke to Newman on Friday, she seemed more cautious than she had during the primary, avoiding drawing any national lessons from her narrow win and signalling that her priorities lie close to home. “Everybody wants health care for all,” she said, and favors increased wages, universal child care, paid leave, and stronger unions. “That’s really the district’s agenda. Therefore, it is my agenda, and that’s what I care about most. What I don’t care about is squabbling about labels. I really could care less about that.”