Two of last night’s big stories in Illinois’s primary elections were the survival of pro-life Democrat Dan Lipinski against a vigorous primary challenge from the left in Illinois’s third congressional district, and a Holocaust-denying Nazi gadfly taking the Republican nomination to face Lipinski. But contrary to how they were portrayed in the media, these were not two stories; they were one story.
Illinois’s third district runs from the southwest side of Chicago to the suburbs on the western and southwestern sides of the city, extending into DuPage and Will counties. Lipinski more or less inherited the district from his father, Bill Lipinski, first elected to Congress in 1983. It’s safe Democratic turf, safer than its D+6 rating by Charlie Cook would suggest; there hasn’t been a Republican congressman in this neighborhood since 1975. According to David Nir at DailyKos Elections, the district went 58.3 to 40.4 for Barack Obama in 2008, 55.9 to 42.6 for Obama in 2012, and 55.2-39.9 for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Hillary carried 74.3 percent of the vote in Cook County, 53 percent in DuPage County and 49.95% in Will County; in the entire rest of the state, she carried only 8 out of 99 counties, 5 by a majority and none others with 60 percent of the vote. Mark Kirk also lost all three counties in 2016. Lipinski ran unopposed in 2016, and in a Republican wave years of 2014 and 2010 he won with 64.6 percent and 69.7 percent of the vote; his 29-point margin of victory in 2014 was the worst of his career. With Republicans scrambling to hold previously safe Republican turf in 2018, spending money and grassroots effort to take out Lipinski could hardly be a lower priority.
But the safety of his district is also why progressives wanted Lipinksi replaced. Among the dwindling number of Democrats who describe themselves as being pro-life, Lipinski is — as Alexandra DeSanctis has noted — one of the few with a voting record of actually putting some deeds behind his words, and the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List poured six-figure money and scores of volunteers into the district in the hopes of preserving even a small foothold for the pro-life movement in the Democratic party, bragging that its canvassers had reached 23,000 people. Pro-choice activists did the same, with presidential hopefuls like Kirsten Gillibrand (herself a former “Blue Dog” now reinventing, or revealing, herself as a Berniecrat) denouncing Lipinski:
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) March 13, 2018
Enter Arthur Jones. A 70-year-old self-described “white racialist” and former leader of the American Nazi Party, he first ran for mayor of Milwaukee on the National Socialist White People’s Party ticket in 1976, and has made five prior efforts to run for Congress. As The Atlantic‘s Elaine Godfrey notes,
When he ran in 1998, the Cook County Republican Central Committee denounced his candidacy, saying it would be a “national embarrassment” if he was nominated. That year, the GOP nominated Robert Marshall for the seat—who once called drunk driving a “grossly overblown” problem and began a League of Men Voters to advocate for fathers in custody battles. (Marshall lost.) Most recently, Jones filed to run in the 2016 Republican primary, but the Illinois State Election Board threw out his petition in response to a GOP challenge, citing invalid signatures.
But in 2016, Republicans couldn’t recruit an opponent for Lipinski; kicking Jones off the ballot left him unopposed. Similar dynamics were at work this year, while Jones flew under the radar, going door-to-door to collect the required signatures. He touted his foreign-policy goal — “ending America’s wars in the Middle East, which he says primarily serve the interests of Israel” — which makes him sound more like a Democrat.
Illinois Republicans have denounced Jones loudly in the most vigorous terms to anyone who would listen, but without an opponent, all they could do was tell people to boycott the unopposed primary:
The Illinois Republican Party has sought to distance itself from Mr. Jones in recent weeks, blanketing the district with campaign fliers and robocalls urging voters to “stop Illinois Nazis,” according to a robocall script provided by the party. Mr. Jones said he had received three robocalls himself.
“Arthur Jones is not a real Republican — he is a Nazi whose disgusting, bigoted views have no place in our nation’s discourse,” Tim Schneider, the Illinois Republican Party chairman, said in a statement. He said the party had urged voters “to skip over his name when they go to the polls” and moving forward planned on “vehemently opposing Jones with real campaign dollars.”
This is where Lipinksi’s primary comes into the picture. Because Illinois has an open primary system, so Republican voters could cross over into the contested race rather than pull the lever for the Nazi. And a pro-life Democrat with national pro-life groups campaigning for him and prominent national Democrats denouncing him is a candidate that more Republicans could in good conscience support. As The Intercept‘s Ryan Grim reported:
Sophia Olazaba, a field manager for the Newman campaign, said she doesn’t doubt that some Republican voters crossed over. “Even when we were canvassing, a lot of homes have had both Jeanne Ives and Dan Lipinski signs, so those people could have crossed over,” she said, referring to the GOP gubernatorial candidate whose entire campaign was premised on her opposition to legal abortion.
Another volunteer, Sabrina Ithal, also from the 3rd district, mentioned that the open primary format could have actually worked in their favor: “I converted quite a few Republicans who voted Democrat for the first time in 30-40 years today.”
If you wanted to advance Republican policy priorities in IL-03, you were better off backing Lipinski, an occasional ally on a few topics, than engaging in the pointless Republican primary.
In the end, over 90,000 votes were cast in the primary, more than 47,000 of them for Lipinski. Turnout on the unopposed GOP side was not even reported by many sources, although people did come out to vote because there was a contested GOP primary for Illinois Governor; Decision Desk’s Brandon Finnigan reports that Jones got just 16,181 votes, likely many of them people just pulling the party lever without knowing more than the (R). This is a far cry from the 64,000 votes for Lipinski’s opponent in 2014, and even recognizing the difference between county and district lines, it’s a drop in the bucket compared to the 48,000 votes cast in the Rauner-Ives race in DuPage County, 38,000 in Will County, and 130,000 in Cook County (Ives carried DuPage and Will, Rauner carried Cook).
By contrast, Democratic Congressman Danny Davis, under fire for his embrace of notorious anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan, got 77,858 votes, winning his primary in Illinois’s seventh district by a 50,000 vote margin. That won’t stop Democrats, who spent much of the last decade downplaying the importance of ties to extremists in Chicago politics, from dining out on the GOP’s failure to keep Jones off the ballot. But the reality is that Jones is a blip in a district that Republicans won’t contest, and Republican voters mostly ignored him or crossed over to back Lipinski.
And maybe if Democrats want to marginalize and draw support away from extremists in the Republican fold, they could learn a thing or two from Dan Lipinski.