Despite Blue Dog Democrat Dan Lipinski's conservative record, the anti-choice congressman narrowly defeated primary challenger Marie Newman in Illinois's 3rd District on Tuesday in a race that has been closely watched at a national level.
"Can the progressive wing of the party mount a powerful enough challenge to entrenched, well-funded incumbents that it can threaten the status quo? The answer to that question, clearly, is yes."
—Ryan Grim, The Intercept
Lipinski was pegged as the clear victor early Wednesday, with a lead of nearly 1,600 votes and about 97 percent of precincts reporting. As Dave Wasserman, who analyzes House races for The Cook Political Report, put it, the state's establishment Democratic "machine looks like it'll live to fight another day."
But in her concession statement Wednesday morning, Newman emphasized that "we lost by a thin margin" and "since we started our campaign, Dan Lipinski has moved his position on healthcare, a path to citizenship, and the need for a fair minimum wage. We put him on notice that we expect better for all of the people in our district."
The race has been framed by many as an notable example of insurgent progressive candidates taking on more conservative Democratic incumbents like Lipinski in an effort to push the party left. Wasserman cautioned against using this race to predict the outcomes of other races though, calling Lipinski "an extreme outlier in today's Dem caucus," and noting, "There are virtually no analogous situations elsewhere."
Acknowledging that the race "was not the Bernie-versus-Hillary frame that is popular in the press," The Intercept's Ryan Grim argued that in spite of the results, the fact that it was such a close fight provides an important answer to the question: "Can the progressive wing of the party mount a powerful enough challenge to entrenched, well-funded incumbents that it can threaten the status quo?"
"The answer to that question, clearly, is yes," Grim concluded. "Lipinski may have held on, but he got the kind of political scare that no incumbent wants."
Although Lipinski has faced mounting criticism for his conservative stances on reproductive and LGBTQ rights, healthcare, and immigration, he retained the support of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. In the final week of the race, the seven-term incumbent's bid was also bolstered by the anti-choice group Susan B. Anthony List, which typically backs Republicans.
Stephen Wolf, who covers elections and redistricting for Daily Kos, outlined in a series of tweets Tuesday night how the state's 2011 redistricting likely favored Lipinski.
Reminder: Lipinski's Dem legislative allies specifically gerrymandered this seat to protect him from a progressive primary challenger. That could make all the difference tonight #IL03 https://t.co/TsNRYzTc46
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— Stephen Wolf (@PoliticsWolf) March 21, 2018
Another thing Dems did in 2011 redistricting that helped Lipinski in the #IL03 primary: They lowered the Hispanic proportion of his district from 29% of the adult population to just 24%
— Stephen Wolf (@PoliticsWolf) March 21, 2018
Wasserman pointed to not only the redistricting, but also Lipinksi's legacy status—in 2005, the congressman took over the seat that his father, Bill Lipinski, held for more than two decades.
That said, #IL03 is an old-school Chicago, Dem machine CD where his family name (and family) could still help him across the finish line. Even in the burbs (which were carefully selected to protect him in 2011 redistricting).
— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) March 20, 2018
Newman presented a solidly progressive platform to counter Lipinksi's conservative record. She earned endorsements from Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), and Reps. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), as well as influential groups including EMILY's List and NARAL Pro-Choice America.
NARAL president Ilyse Hogue said the backing of the two Illinois representatives "really woke up the conventional wisdom and consultant class."
Although Lipinski—and the Democratic machine backing him—prevailed in this round, Hogue told Roll Call before the polls closed Tuesday: "Even if Lipinski wins tonight, he's not going to win in 2020." Comparing Newman's momentum throughout the race to that of Democrats in special elections since Donald Trump was elected president, she added: "A win is better, but I don't think they're going back. The message to the political body has been sent."
District 3 historically favors Democrats, and Lipinski is expected to easily defeat his Republican opponent, Holocaust-denying white supremacist Arthur "Art" Jones, in November. While Newman has not disclosed whether she will challenge Lipinski again in 2020, she said Wednesday that she plans "on continuing to hold him accountable so that every person in our district has access, opportunity, and equal rights."