Moderates see vindication in Lipinski’s primary win

Greg Nash

Centrist Democrats are claiming victory after Rep. Daniel Lipinski’s razor-thin primary win in his Chicago-area district on Tuesday.

Lipinski faced the toughest primary challenge of his congressional career Tuesday from Marie Newman, a liberal in the Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) mode who attacked the incumbent for his position on issues as varied as immigration, reproductive health and LGBT rights.

The win for Lipinski, a Blue Dogs co-chair, has energized moderate Democrats who have struggled to gain a foothold in the party’s post-2016 landscape. They’ve warned against blanket tests of ideological purity as Democrats look to win back the House in November’s midterms.

{mosads}Now those moderates are taking a victory lap, arguing that Lipinski’s win shows clearly that the Democrats can be an ideologically diverse party — unbound to litmus tests even on issues as contentious as abortion rights — and still be successful at the polls.

“I’d like to think the Democratic Party has evolved beyond having to have one message to fit all the different parts of this country,” said Rep. Kurt Schrader (D-Ore.), another Blue Dog. “I’d like to think we’re coming back to the good old days when we were a big tent party, respected everybody, and hopefully better legislation comes out of that.”

Lipinski won, Schrader said, because he “knows his district pretty well and the people still like him.”

“I think people there don’t like outside groups coming in and trying to nationalize an election where it’s mostly, in their opinion, about how well he’s … delivered for them on a daily basis.”

A coalition of progressive groups spent more than $1.6 million in an attempt to topple Lipinski. Addressing the outside money that flooded into the district in a speech Tuesday night, Lipinski urged Democrats to be more inclusive, warning that moving too far to the left will alienate more moderate voters and cost them critical elections in November.

Liberals have reached an entirely different conclusion. They say the close contest — Lipinski won by only 2 points against Newman, a virtual unknown — is evidence that embracing progressive values is the Democrats’ surest route back to the majority.

“A 51-49 race should give anyone a wake-up call that your constituents would … like you to maybe be a little more progressive when it comes to a woman’s reproductive choice, to my and my husband’s right to exist,” said Rep. Mark Pocan, a gay Democrat from Wisconsin who heads the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC). The message, Pocan added, is that in a deep-blue district like the one Lipinski represents “you should have someone who has deeper blue values.”

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez (D-Ill.), a sharp Lipinski critic who endorsed Newman, also hailed the outcome as a victory for liberals, arguing that Lipinski won only because Newman forced him to the left, particularly on the issue of immigration.

“The message is, Lipinski got religion,” Gutiérrez said.

The disagreements over what Lipinski’s narrow win means highlight the broader split in the Democratic caucus over the best way to win back the House in November’s midterms.  

Centrists Democrats argue that the party needs to find candidates that suit their districts and have crossover appeal with independents and Republicans.

They believe that, with that goal in mind, the party will be well-positioned to flip the two-dozen seats they need to regain the majority. They say primary fights risk distracting the party at a crucial point.

“It’s not helpful for groups on the far-left to come out swinging against moderates who are well-suited for their districts for no reason,” said a consultant who works for moderate House Democrats.

“We need to look forward to taking back the majority. In order to do that, we need to have all different kinds of Democrats underneath our tent.”

Many point to last week’s highly watched special election in Pennsylvania as evidence that the party can compete on a large battlefield that encompasses more GOP-friendly territory.

Democrat Conor Lamb has apparently pulled off a stunning victory in a district where President Trump won by nearly 20 points in 2016. Lamb was able to make inroads in a more conservative district by honing his message on economic and labor issues, but not leaning too heavily into social issues.

Lamb said he’s personally opposed to abortion, but supports the right to choose and said he wouldn’t back a 20-week abortion ban.

And as the debate over guns heated up following the mass shooting in Parkland, Fla., he said he supports strengthened background checks but wouldn’t back an assault weapons ban. Lamb’s debut campaign ad featured the candidate, a military veteran, shooting an AR-15 at a gun range.

Lamb also quickly distanced himself from House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.), a frequent target for Republican attacks. Lamb said he wouldn’t support Pelosi for her leadership role if elected, effectively blunting the GOP’s anti-Pelosi message.

Some Democrats have used Lamb as an example of why the party needs more moderates to win tough House races. But progressives believe his views on Social Security, Medicare, infrastructure and labor unions are “core progressive, populist economic messages,” in Pocan’s words.

Lamb met with House Democrats in the Capitol Wednesday morning. Leaving the meeting, Pocan noted that, from a policy perspective, there’s little difference between the incoming freshman and the most liberal voices on Capitol Hill.

“So I would argue that he ran on a populist progressive message, which is exactly … what we’ve advocated for. So I think that’s great. And he connected it back to the district,” Pocan said.

Rep. Ben Ray Luján (N.M.), chairman of the House Democrats’ campaign arm, downplayed any tension between liberals who want the party to embrace a national progressive message and centrists who want to field more moderate candidates in an attempt to capture more districts.

Luján has previously said there will be no litmus test on abortion for 2018 candidates. And while Luján and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee ultimately backed Lipinski, moderates complained that they dragged their feet before backing the incumbent.

“I think you can have both. Look, there’s going to be a national narrative and a national conversation, but there’s going to be a lot of local conversations taking place,” Luján said. “How can we have that national conversation but make sure we drill down and have it in the most local way we can?

“That’s going to make the biggest difference.”

Tags 2018 midterm elections Bernie Sanders Blue Dog Coalition Congressional Progressive Caucus Dan Lipinski Daniel Lipinski Democratic Party Donald Trump Kurt Schrader Mark Pocan Nancy Pelosi Nancy Pelosi primaries Republican Party

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