Democrats rally behind incumbents as Lipinski takes liberal fire

Democrats rally behind incumbents as Lipinski takes liberal fire
© Greg Nash

Democrats are rallying behind their incumbents after a small band of liberal lawmakers endorsed a primary challenge to Rep. Daniel LipinskiDaniel William LipinskiDemocratic group to only endorse attorney general candidates who back abortion rights Democrats unveil impeachment procedures The Hill's Campaign Report: Biden camp faces new challenges MORE (D-Ill.) in a blue Chicagoland district. 

Lipinski’s critics say the eight-term Blue Dog is simply too conservative to represent the party, citing his opposition to abortion and his vote against ObamaCare. They’re endorsing Marie Newman, a liberal businesswoman who also challenged Lipinski in the 2018 midterms — a hard-fought contest that Lipinski eked out by just over 2,000 votes. 

But the attacks on a sitting colleague have unsettled a number of Democrats now rushing to Lipinski’s defense. These lawmakers, including some prominent progressives, want Democrats to avoid divisive internal fights heading into the 2020 elections, when they have bigger fish to fry with President TrumpDonald John TrumpRepublicans consider skipping witnesses in Trump impeachment trial Bombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Lawmakers dismiss Chinese retaliatory threat to US tech MORE on the ballot and the direction of the country at stake. 

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Backed by Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiTrump trade deal likely to sow division in Democratic presidential field Trump supporters at Pa. rally 'upset' after Democrats introduce impeachment articles California GOP candidate arrested on stalking charges MORE (D-Calif.) and other party leaders, these voices are urging Democrats to stick together, protect their incumbents and embrace the diversity of views — even conservative ones — that could pay dividends in battleground districts next year.

“We all need to realize that the Democratic Party is a party of a big tent, and so we have to be tolerant of other member's views and not go after each other in party primaries,” said Rep. Wm. Lacy ClayWilliam (Lacy) Lacy ClayLawmakers honor JFK on 56th anniversary of his death Trump tax breaks for low-income neighborhoods draw scrutiny Maloney wins vote for Oversight chairwoman MORE (D-Mo.), a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) who faced his own primary challenge last year. 

“Apparently his district is connected to him,” Clay said of Lipinski, “and they showed their support for him in the last cycle. So why we would interfere in other members' districts is just beyond me.”

Rep. Adriano EspaillatAdriano de Jesus Espaillat CabralDemocrats vow court victories won't slow impeachment timeline Overnight Defense: Protests at Trump's NYC Veterans Day speech | House Dems release Pentagon official's deposition transcript | Lawmakers ask Trump to rescind Erdogan invite Bipartisan House members call on Trump to rescind Erdoğan invitation MORE (D-N.Y.), another CPC member whose district includes Harlem and parts of the Bronx, said he’s so progressive that he’s “to the left of Che Guevara.” But he warned against trying to oust more conservative Democratic incumbents. 

“We can’t cannibalize each other,” Espaillat told The Hill.

The pushback against Lipinski’s critics highlights the broader ideological tensions within the sprawling Democratic Caucus, which has seen a liberal insurgence in the Trump era but owes its House majority to centrist lawmakers who flipped Republican seats last year in conservative-leaning districts — tensions being fueled by the emergence of similar clashes among the Democratic presidential hopefuls on the primary trail. 

Caught in the middle are Democratic leaders, who are fighting at once to energize a liberal base while protecting the so-called majority makers in battleground districts. Attempting that balance, House Majority Leader Steny HoyerSteny Hamilton HoyerThe Hill's 12:30 Report — Presented by UANI — House Dems charge Trump with abuse, obstruction of Congress in impeachment articles Hoyer predicts impeachment vote next week Pelosi announces support for new Trump NAFTA deal MORE (D-Md.) this week suggested those lawmakers going after incumbents have adopted a misguided strategy — one that could benefit Republicans at the polls. 

“We want to see the party as unified as possible,” Hoyer said. “We think it's very important to keep the majority, obviously, not just because we want to be in the majority, but because the values that the parties reflect [are] very, very disparate — as disparate as I've seen it in my entire career.”

A handful of liberal hardliners have a decidedly different view, urging Democrats to embrace a progressive identity on issues like abortion rights and LGBT equality — and to reject those lawmakers who stray from those causes. 

In a tweet this week that raised eyebrows in the Democratic Caucus, Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaBombshell Afghanistan report bolsters calls for end to 'forever wars' Armed Services chair calls defense bill 'most progressive in the history of the country' after criticism Lawmakers release defense bill with parental leave-for-Space Force deal MORE (D-Calif.), a CPC leader, called out fellow liberals who have declined to line up behind Newman.

Khanna, who got his political start as a campaign volunteer for former President Obama’s first Illinois state Senate race in 1996 and later served in the Obama administration, doubled down on his stance in an interview with The Hill later in the week.

“Progressives have to stand for certain basic values: reproductive choice, LGBT equality, the rights for Dreamers. These things should not be places where we compromise,” Khanna told The Hill. 

“And when you have someone like Dan Lipinski, who was a thorn in the side of Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe mullahs seek to control uncontrolled chaos Poll: Majority of Democrats thinks Obama was better president than Washington Obama urges Americans to get health coverage in new holiday video MORE, who opposed with all his passion President Obama’s Affordable Care Act, who has opposed reproductive rights, who has opposed LGBT equality, who has opposed the rights of Dreamers,” Khanna continued, “then you have to take a stand and say that person doesn’t represent Democratic values. That person doesn’t respect the most iconic president, Barack Obama, in our party. He doesn’t deserve to be there. I don’t understand why that is so difficult.”

The only other members to endorse Newman are progressive freshmen Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-CortezAlexandria Ocasio-CortezBiden narrowly ahead in Iowa as Sanders surges, Warren drops: poll Democrats reach cusp of impeachment Progressives hopeful for deal with Pelosi to avert showdown on drug prices MORE (D-N.Y.) and Lauren UnderwoodLauren UnderwoodRep. Veronica Escobar elected to represent freshman class in House leadership Brindisi, Lamb recommended for Armed Services, Transportation Committees Club for Growth extends advertising against House Dems over impeachment MORE (D-Ill.).

“We can’t afford deep blue seats fighting against healthcare & equal rights," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Tuesday in endorsing Newman.

Lipinski fired back on Friday, warning that Democrats risk handing the White House back to Trump if the infighting continues. 

“Illinois’ Third Congressional District is not the Bay Area and it’s not the Bronx,” he said in an email. “The endorsement of Marie Newman by Rep. Khanna and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez make clear that this primary is a choice between mainstream Dan Lipinski and extreme Marie Newman. My constituents want mainstream, not extreme.”

Lipinski is no stranger to either primary challenges or opposition from sitting Democrats. In last year’s primary, two veteran Illinois Democrats — Reps. Jan SchakowskyJanice (Jan) Danoff SchakowskyOvernight Health Care — Presented by That's Medicaid — Progressives hope to avoid drug-pricing showdown with Pelosi | 'Medicare for All' backers get high-profile hearing | Dems take victory lap after eliminating drug protections in trade deal 'Medicare for All' backers notch win with high-profile hearing Democrats declare victory for eliminating drug protections in trade deal MORE and Luis Gutiérrez — bucked their colleague to endorse Newman.

In what might be a sign of shifting political dynamics in a presidential cycle, however, Schakowsky has so far declined to pick a side in this year’s contest. And Rep. Jesús Garcia (D-Ill.), a liberal freshman who replaced the retired Gutiérrez, said he’s “not in a hurry” to jump into the race — and suggested he won’t do so.

“I serve with him on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and at least three subcommittees,” Garcia said of Lipinski, “so I really haven't given that much thought.”

The incumbents-versus-insurgents debate churned earlier in the year when the Democrats’ campaign arm adopted a new policy designed to protect sitting lawmakers by denying contracts to campaign firms that work for primary challengers. 

The policy drew howls from outside liberal groups supporting primary challengers, which quickly accused Democratic leaders of using their financial muscle to stifle the energy of the surging progressive base. But Democratic lawmakers of all stripes have lined up behind efforts to keep their colleagues in place.

“I know Marie and like Marie, but there’s also something to the fact that [Lipinski’s] a current member and that mutual respect,” Rep. Robin KellyRobin Lynne KellyHillicon Valley: FCC moves against Huawei, ZTE | Dem groups ask Google to reconsider ads policy | Bill introduced to increase data access during probes Dems call out Oracle for lack of diversity on its board Overnight Health Care: GOP senator says drug price action unlikely this year | House panel weighs ban on flavored e-cigs | New York sues Juul MORE, another progressive Illinois Democrat, told The Hill. “I don’t agree with all of his stances, but you know how you respect the office, like we say about the president?”

--This report was updated on Sept. 24 at 7:32 a.m.