Dem leaders rally behind anti-abortion rep in tough primary contest

Dem leaders rally behind anti-abortion rep in tough primary contest
© Greg Nash

House Democratic leaders are rallying behind Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) as he faces the toughest primary contest in his 14 years on Capitol Hill. 

House Minority Leader Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Will Trump's racist tweets backfire? Al Green: 'We have the opportunity to punish' Trump with impeachment vote MORE (D-Calif.), Minority Whip Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThe Hill's Morning Report - A raucous debate on race ends with Trump admonishment White House, Congress inch toward debt, budget deal House to test Trump's veto pen on Saudi arms sales MORE (D-Md.) and Rep. Joseph Crowley (N.Y.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, have all come out vocally in recent days to throw their weight behind the incumbent, a centrist Blue Dog leader being challenged by a liberal anti-bullying activist who’s questioning Lipinski’s Democratic bona fides.

“I support Dan,” Crowley said this week.

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The race has become a flashpoint in the much broader debate over the direction of the party as it seeks to hone its message — and tamp down divisions between liberals and centrists — to win back the House in November’s midterm elections. 

Indeed, the high-octane leadership endorsements mark a break with some liberal members of the caucus, including Illinois Reps. Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyDemocrats ask Labor Department to investigate Amazon warehouses Democrats rush to support Pelosi amid fight with Ocasio-Cortez Pelosi says she's done talking about fight with 'Squad' MORE and Luis Gutiérrez, who’ve been highly critical of Lipinski’s positions on health care, abortion, LGBT rights and immigration. They’ve endorsed Marie Newman, Lipinski’s opponent, in hopes of pulling the party to the left.

Fueling the effort, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders to call on 2020 Democrats to reject money from drug, health insurance industries The hidden connection between immigration and health care: Our long-term care crisis Harris tops Biden in California 2020 poll MORE (I-Vt.), the populist icon and potential 2020 presidential contender, also endorsed Newman this week.

The contest has also raised questions about the devotion of the Democrats’ campaign arm to the party’s sitting members. While the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) is now actively backing Lipinski’s bid, the incumbent had told various news outlets in recent weeks that the support was being withheld. The perceived delay in sending resources prompted an outcry from some Blue Dogs, who’ve voiced concerns that the liberal-leaning caucus was giving its centrist members the cold shoulder. 

"We Blue Dogs don't understand it. He's an incumbent," one House Democrat told The Hill this week. "Of course the DCCC should endorse him." 

A DCCC aide pushed back hard Friday against any suggestion that the group was shunning incumbents of any stripe. DCCC chairman Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) created a new branch this cycle — the Member Engagement Department — with four staffers charged with providing political support to all members who seek it, the aide noted.

“Congressman Lipinski is taking this race seriously, he has ample resources and support at home, and is running to win,” Lujan said.

The Democrats are in little danger of losing the Chicago-area district, a safely blue region that supported Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump thanks 'vicious young Socialist Congresswomen' for his poll numbers Will Trump's racist tweets backfire? Democrats fret over Trump cash machine MORE over President TrumpDonald John TrumpPompeo changes staff for Russia meeting after concerns raised about top negotiator's ties: report House unravels with rise of 'Les Enfants Terrible' Ben Carson: Trump is not a racist and his comments were not racist MORE by a margin of 15 points in 2016. But the primary race has exposed internal disagreements over how the party can speak more effectively to heartland voters — and boost its fortunes at the polls — while staying true to its liberal base. 

Lipinski has ruffled liberal feathers for years with his staunch opposition to abortion, his vote against ObamaCare, repeated efforts to resist an expansion of LGBT rights and his position on immigration, including a vote against the Dream Act in 2010. During the Trump administration, when those issues have risen to prominence and the "Me Too" movement against sexual harassment and assault is sweeping the country, Newman’s liberal supporters say the time is ripe for Lipinski to go.

“The people of Illinois' 3rd district want a pro-health care, pro-immigrant, pro-woman, pro-LGBTQ Member of Congress to represent them in Washington,” Schakowsky said in endorsing Newman. “Unfortunately, the current member does not reflect those values.”

Gutiérrez, for his part, will host an immigration roundtable with Newman on Saturday. And recent polls show the race is tightening. A survey from Public Policy Polling, released this week, shows Lipinksi holding a slim lead, 43 to 41 percent.

Still, Lipinski is a formidable force who’s shown remarkable staying power, despite the shifting winds of his party. He has deep roots in the district, winning the seat that was vacated by his father, Bill Lipinski, who held it for a decade before. And he’s enjoyed the long-standing support of organized labor. Both of Chicago’s major newspapers, the Tribune and the Sun Times, have endorsed him. 

The Democratic leaders have given Lipinski more than just their endorsements. Both Hoyer and Crowley have contributed thousands of dollars to Lipinski’s campaign this cycle.

The endorsement from Pelosi is particularly notable. She was the leading force behind the passage of ObamaCare in the House, has been a life-long champion of LGBT rights and access to abortion, the Dream Act was among her last victories as House Speaker, and Lipinski has regularly voted against her in the lower chamber’s biennial leadership races.

Still, Pelosi didn’t hesitate this month when asked if she supported the Illinois Blue Dog. 

“Yes, I do,” she said.

The primary contest is scheduled for March 20.

Scott Wong contributed.