Dan Lipinski is, by many Democratic measures, virtually a Republican. Challenger Marie Newman is endorsed by EMILY’s List and NARAL, among other organizations. But to the D.C.C.C., incumbency is the highest value.
As the G.O.P. assault on women’s reproductive rights escalated in recent weeks, punctuated by the passage of anti-abortion laws in Georgia, Ohio, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Missouri, and Alabama, Democratic Party leaders and lawmakers were quick to condemn the draconian legislation, and women’s reproductive rights were suddenly, at long last, at the center of the Democrats’ 2020 agenda.
But there was a large hole in this unified front: the Democratic establishment continues to back an anti-choice congressman against a pro-choice woman challenger in the primary for Illinois’s 3rd Congressional district. Daniel Lipinski, a staunchly pro-life 14-year incumbent in the House, will face his second challenge from Marie Newman, a pro-choice Democrat, who fell just 2.2 points short of victory in the 2018 cycle. But this time around, Lipinski will have another leg up thanks to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s new policy of not conducting business with vendors who support primary challenges against Democratic incumbents. And only one 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, Kirsten Gillibrand, has formally thrown her support behind Newman over Lipinski.
The primary race has focused interest on the contradictions of establishment Democratic Party politics, where incumbency can be a value in itself, as important as any policy position, or even more so. “What Dan Lipinski may want to believe personally is his right. Everyone has the right to their personal beliefs but when it comes the law and when it comes to public policy, he has to be for constitutional reproductive rights to affiliate, in my view, with what it means to be a Democrat,” Congressman Ro Khanna, the only House Democrat to back Newman in the 2020 cycle, told me. “You have the irony that the Democratic Party in Washington is blackballing consultants who seek to work on [a] female candidate’s race who is pro-choice against a man who doesn’t recognize reproductive rights and our party is saying that if you work for the woman who is pro-choice against a man who is anti-choice, we’re never going to do business with you. In what world does that make sense, just from a common sense perspective?”
The D.C.C.C. insists that the policy benefits the party, whatever turmoil it can inspire. “That policy is staying,” said a Democratic strategist allied with the D.C.C.C. “This is a membership organization and our priority is its membership and we believe that it is an imperative in 2020 that Democratic time, talent, and financial resources are focused on expanding the map into Republican-held parts of the country and defeating Republicans,” the Democratic strategist told me, noting that it is intended to protect all incumbents—progressives and moderates alike. “Our policy of standing with the caucus is not changing in any way, shape, or form and re-electing our incumbents is key to that effort; key to fortifying and expanding our majority and one specific event for an incumbent is not changing our policy to protect the caucus as a whole.”
The bad optics came into focus last week when, one day after Alabama legislators voted to ban abortions in nearly all cases, Crain’s Chicago Business reported that Democratic Congresswoman Cheri Bustos,the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, was to headline a fundraiser for Lipinski in Chicago at the beginning of next month. Facing a fusillade of criticism, on Wednesday night, the D.C.C.C. announced that Bustos would no longer attend the Lipinski fundraiser. “[Lipinski] asked me to attend a fundraiser for him several months ago, and I agreed to do so, but I’ve determined that I must cancel my participation in this event,” Bustos wrote in a statement. “I’m proud to have a 100 percent pro-choice voting record and I’m deeply alarmed by the rapidly escalating attacks on women’s access to reproductive care in several states.”
Bustos planned to attend the Lipinski fundraiser in “her personal capacity,” according to the Democratic strategist familiar with her thinking, but once she determined her attendance to be “a distraction to her work as chair of the D-Trip” decided to pull out of the event. “Her job as chairwoman of the D.C.C.C. is to protect the Democratic Caucus. He is one member of that caucus and Republicans across the country have actively stepped up their attacks in dragging actual efforts to undermine reproductive health access,” this person said. “She takes that extremely seriously as her voting record confirms and is stepping away from the fundraiser for that reason.” But this reasoning is, arguably, antithetical because while Bustos may be stepping away from the fundraiser, the D.C.C.C. is not backing down from its promise to protect all Democratic incumbents from primary challenges—and no exception will be made for Newman, despite her endorsements from EMILY’s List, MoveOn, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.
In the eyes of many Democrats, Lipinski is practically a Republican, voting with President Trump nearly 40 percent of the time in the 115th Congress. But he is running for re-election in a decidedly blue district, which swung 6 percentage points more Democratic than the national average in the past two presidential elections. In an interview with The New York Times Wednesday night after Bustos, a member of the centrist New Democrat Coalition, announced her decision to pull out of the fundraiser, Lipinski said the D.C.C.C. chair was put “in an incredibly difficult spot” and didn’t assign blame to her, but the “people in the party who are not tolerant.” Their narrow views on abortion, he said, are “how we got President Trump—people felt like they weren’t welcome in the party.” The Newman campaign, unsurprisingly, sees the situation differently. “The coordinated assault on Roe v. Wade we’re seeing in a handful of state legislatures is horrifying,” Ben Hardin, Newman’s campaign manager, said. “In a district like Illinois’s Third Congressional, which is 69 percent pro-choice, this recent news is obviously frightening for our community when we have a representative in Dan Lipinski who has been so vocally anti-choice and such a real threat to women’s health his entire career. And it’s unfortunate that we keep having to fight people like Representative Lipinski on this.”
As the campaign arm of the Democratic caucus, the D.C.C.C. says its duty is to protect the incumbent Democrats, and—despite the inherent advantage all incumbents have—the organization has staked out the position that the best way to fend off Republican victories rests with incumbents and this policy is a means to that end. The fear, as the theory goes, is that a progressive Democrat might be able to best an incumbent in a Democratic primary but lose in a general election, flipping the seat to the G.O.P. Though, the Democratic strategist says the D.C.C.C. policy will apply to progressive Democrats—like Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, both of whom are likely to face primary challenges on the right—just as much as it would a Blue Dog Democrat like Lipinski.
It’s not just Bustos and the D.C.C.C. that have drawn criticism over the Illinois primary race. Others view the episode as a moral failure by leaders of the party. “It’s shameful and embarrassing for the party what Bustos is doing by fundraising for Lipinski, and that the speaker is silent, it’s even more pathetic how few members are standing up to her publicly,” a Democratic congressional aide told me earlier this week, before Bustos announced she would no longer attend the Lipinski fundraiser. “We’re just as bad as those who voted for the Alabama abortion bill if we are not doing more to stand up for fundamental principles.”
The 2020 Democratic field, too, has largely stayed out of the race. As mentioned, Senator Gillibrand is the only presidential hopeful to endorse Newman, which she also did in 2018. When asked about this decision, the Gillibrand campaign pointed to the stance the senator staked out last week that the Democratic Party should be “be 100 percent pro-choice, and it should be non-negotiable.” Vanity Fairreached out to the campaigns of all the other 2020 Democratic campaigns, but none said they planned to endorse Newman over Lipinski.
The Julián Castro and Mike Gravel campaigns did, however, signal that they would not support anti-choice candidates in general and the Eric Swalwell campaign said in a statement that the California congressman “is outraged by nationwide attempts to take away women’s right to choose” and “during this campaign and as president, he will do all he can to protect reproductive freedom and uphold Roe v. Wade.” Campaign spokespeople for Andrew Yang, Beto O’Rourke, and Bernie Sanders declined to comment for this story, though Sanders notably endorsed Newman in the 2018 cycle. All the other presidential candidates, including leaders in the Democratic field—Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden,Pete Buttigieg, and Kamala Harris—did not respond to multiple requests for comment on whether they intended to endorse Newman.
The problem with the silence from party leadership, Khanna explained, is that “it introduces doubt into a morality clarity, positions are always best when there is a clear principle behind them and this just creates some doubt and ambiguity that is totally unnecessary.” He continued, “A lot of the presidential candidates have been speaking out very forcefully and passionately and eloquently on the assault that is taking place in these states and I hope that a couple of them will speak out against what the D.C.C.C. is doing because that will reverse course. I mean my interest is not in beating up on the D.C.C.C., I obviously think that they do a great job in general in building majorities. My interest is in getting them to change their policy on this.”