CHICAGO — Powerful interests are lined up against him. Outside spending groups are forming to advocate for his defeat. National political figures have endorsed his opponent.
And that’s just within Democratic Congressman Dan Lipinski’s own party.
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Lipinski, one of the few remaining conservative Democrats in Congress, is under siege from the left, battling for his political life against progressives who are teaming up to replace him with a candidate far more in line with liberal orthodoxy.
That candidate, Marie Newman, a businesswoman and former marketing consultant, already has high-profile endorsements from feminist icon Gloria Steinem and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — an unusual show of opposition against a fellow Democratic congressional incumbent.
Newman has also received a rare joint endorsement from a handful of influential progressive groups: NARAL, MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Human Rights Campaign.
While Lipinski is accustomed to drawing primary challenges in his Chicago-based district, he’s never before been targeted with so much local and national firepower.
“Dan Lipinski has a real, formidable challenger like he’s never had before. The environment is different … The energy is palpable,” said Sasha Bruce, vice president for campaigns and strategies with NARAL, referring to the energy created by resistance to President Donald Trump. “This is a staunchly progressive values-Democratic district.”
First elected in 2004, Lipinski is something of an exotic species: a Democrat who opposes abortion and cast votes against both the Affordable Care Act and the DREAM Act, which sought to provide a pathway to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants.
He was the only Democrat to cosponsor the “First Amendment Defense Act,” which protects those who refuse services to same sex couples, and the only Illinois Democrat to support drug testing of those seeking unemployment benefits — a move that has at least some union leaders considering opposing his reelection.
According to one analysis, Lipinski has voted in line with Trump’s positions 34.5 percent of the time — a legislative record that is begging for a primary challenge in a highly polarized era.
Some of those votes have left a bitter aftertaste in his solidly Democratic district, which includes Latino working class neighborhoods in Chicago — the district is roughly one-third Latino — and suburbs south of the city. Until recently, Lipinski was the only Illinois Democrat not to commit to supporting the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program (DACA).
“There are quite a few precincts in the district that are heavily Latino, where immigration issues are of primary concern and he’s just never been anyone who has supported immigrants,” said Democratic state Rep. Theresa Mah, whose own legislative district overlaps with the congressman’s.
Progressives long frustrated with Lipinski’s habit of siding with Republicans view the March 20 primary as the best chance they’ve had in years to unseat him. Some still harbor bad feelings toward Lipinski for the heavy-handed way his father, 22-year Congressman William Lipinski, engineered his son’s succession to the seat more than a decade ago.
NARAL Pro-Choice America has already aired a TV ad in his district that asks “Who is Dan working for? It sure isn’t us.” Along with other national progressive groups, they plan to put feet on the ground to knock on doors and campaign for Newman.
Lipinski pushes back against the characterization that he’s conservative — in fact, in 2016 he supported Bernie Sanders in the presidential primary. The congressman notes that he and Sanders both oppose the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal.
Lipinski instead casts himself as a moderate voice in Congress who is willing to find middle ground on issues instead of adding to a polarized debate.
“There are people who just want me to follow in line and vote however the party says … We have gotten to a point where everything is black and white. You are either for something in theory or against something in theory, when a lot of these things come down to: what are the details? Let’s try and get the policy right,” he said. “I think my constituents see that is how I’ve always been… I think that’s a real hunger that a lot of Americans have. I’m not just going to be an automaton.”
He maintains that he’s long cared for the needs of his constituents, bringing back tens of millions of dollars for transportation. He also points to his work to prevent sexual harassment and assault in the military and a requirement compelling the administration to publish a manufacturing strategy.
Lipinski said he won’t support a repeal of Obamacare, but doesn’t regret his vote against it — and notes he was reelected three times since then.
“There are Democrats who are a lot more conservative than I am on issues. I wish there were more moderate Democrats,” Lipinski told POLITICO. “I’m pro-life. I make no bones about that. Always have been. I think this painting me as somebody who is really conservative — I have a strong environmental record,” as well as support for seniors, Medicare and Social Security, he said.
Oak Lawn Mayor Sandra Bury defends Lipinski, calling him an elected official who does all the little things right, like showing up to both parades and meetings with seniors.
“Of all our representatives in Congress, I have found him highly responsive, always engaged. He’s hands-on in the community… especially to some in the population, seniors, kids, veterans,” she said. Bury noted that Lipinski helped bring back a $1.35 million federal grant for fire protection. “I can’t speak for everybody, but Congressman Lipinski is very beloved in Oak Lawn.”