Politics & Policy

Can One of the Last Pro-Life Democrats Survive?

Congressman Daniel Lipinski during his 2018 campaign in Chicago Ridge, Ill. (Kamil Krzacznski/Reuters)
Progressives insist that Illinois congressman Dan Lipinski is too conservative for his district, but his real sin is failing to embrace abortion on demand.

In the third congressional district of Illinois, this election cycle is going to be all about abortion. Longtime Democratic congressman Dan Lipinski is facing a primary challenge from Marie Newman, a progressive activist bolstered primarily by Democrats incensed that Lipinski staunchly refuses to abandon his pro-life convictions.

We’ve seen this exact storyline before. In the spring of 2018, Lipinski barely survived a primary challenge from Newman, beating her by a little more than 2 percent, which amounted to just over 2,000 votes. Undaunted, Newman has mounted a second effort, and some early anecdotal coverage from left-leaning publications suggests that the district has shifted enough to give her the edge.

Just last week, Newman picked up what many on the left would consider a coveted endorsement: freshman representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D., N.Y.). To the New York Times, Ocasio-Cortez called Newman “a textbook example of one of the ways that we could be better as a party.” She referred to Lipinski’s incumbency as “extremely problematic.”

But Lipinski seems to view the endorsement as a victory for his own campaign, saying in a blistering statement that it “makes crystal clear that Ms. Newman is an extreme candidate who is completely out of step with the voters of Illinois’ Third District who do not want to be represented by a fifth member of the ‘Squad.’”

Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of Newman is the first time she has openly backed a challenger to any Democratic incumbent, something she has said she’s willing to do if she feels the sitting member of her party is insufficiently progressive. That’s one way many on the left have described Lipinski. Others even refer to him as “conservative.”

As evidence, opponents cite not only his support for abortion restrictions but also his vote against Obamacare and his support for pairing religious-liberty protections with such anti-discrimination legislation as the Equality Act. Newman also has criticized Lipinski for failing to support the Green New Deal, the signature policy of Ocasio-Cortez’s tenure.

Today, Lipinski backs Obamacare and touts his support of it in contrast to Newman’s insistence on “Medicare for All.” The latter, Lipinski says, “would hurt Third District residents by taking away private health insurance from 170 million Americans and eliminating Medicare for seniors,” as well as doubling income taxes for families in the district. On climate change, he points to his efforts to cut greenhouse-gas emissions and enact a carbon tax. The Green New Deal, he notes, would cost somewhere between $50 and $93 trillion and result in the loss of 1.4 million jobs.

Lipinski, then, is a Democratic politician who votes with his party on nearly every issue, and with President Donald Trump less than 5 percent of the time so far this Congress, but who is now considered “conservative” — a sign of the sharp leftward shift the party has taken, even just in this election cycle.

Newman had progressive backing in 2018, but this time she boasts even more, including from a pair of heavyweight presidential candidates, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. The latter endorsement probably carries a good deal of weight with Democratic voters in Lipinski’s district: In the 2016 presidential primary, Sanders defeated Hillary Clinton by eight points there.

The upstart challenger has taken to routinely calling herself “a real Democrat” — the implication being that Lipinski is not. “To be a real Democrat, you have to believe in the platform,” she told Vox in June.

But Medicare for All isn’t an official part of the party’s platform, and Democratic presidential candidates are fairly split on the issue, with front-runner Joe Biden standing strongly against the policy. Likewise, Democrats are divided on the Green New Deal. When the bill came to the floor this spring, not a single Democratic senator voted for it.

It seems that Lipinski is in the doghouse, then, primarily because he refuses to bend the knee to the Left’s insistence on unlimited abortion rights. Newman’s first campaign got its jump-start when abortion-advocacy groups Planned Parenthood, NARAL Pro-Choice America, and EMILY’s List threw their weight behind her. These groups have long had it out for any Democrat who won’t oppose abortion restrictions.

Totally ignored by Lipinski’s progressive opponents is the fact that the incumbent aligns more closely with Democratic voters on abortion than Newman does. A recent Marist poll found that most Democrats, as well as a majority of Americans who identify as pro-choice, support limiting abortion to, at most, the first three months of pregnancy. A Reuters/Ipsos poll from 2018 found that about one-third of Democratic voters say abortion should be “generally illegal.”

For his part, Lipinski rejects the notion that his pro-life views contradict the spirit of his party. “Look, I’m a Democrat because I believe the government needs to help people who are in need in some way,” Lipinski told National Review in January. “And to me, protecting the unborn is part of that.”

Unfortunately, he’s one of the very last Democrats in office to see it that way, and soon he might have to pay the price. Though the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is withholding support from any Democrats challenging incumbents, DCCC chairwoman Representative Cheri Bustos (D., Ill.) canceled her appearance at a fundraiser for Lipinski after outcry from abortion-rights supporters.

The outcome of this race won’t be an indication of whether Democratic politicians can still be pro-life; that question has already been answered in the negative. Instead, it will reveal whether the Democratic-party establishment intends to continue treating its few remaining pro-life members as harmless idiosyncrasies — and whether pro-life Democratic voters in Illinois’s third congressional district will be swayed by the party’s efforts one way or another.

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