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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 LipinskiHouse votes to condemn alleged hysterectomies on migrant women Five things we learned from this year's primaries Hispanic Caucus campaign arm endorses slate of non-Hispanic candidates 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 TrumpBiden to hold virtual bilateral meeting with Mexican president More than 300 charged in connection to Capitol riot Trump Jr.: There are 'plenty' of GOP incumbents who should be challenged MORE on the ballot and the direction of the country at stake. 

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Backed by Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiHouse Democrats pass sweeping .9T COVID-19 relief bill with minimum wage hike Budget Committee chair pledges to raise minimum wage: 'Hold me to it' Capitol review to recommend adding more fencing, 1,000 officers: report 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 ClayProgressives target Manchin, Sinema with new PAC Cori Bush dismisses concerns of being 'co-opted' by establishment Rep. Bush calls Trump a 'white supremacist president' on House floor 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 CabralLawmakers remember actress Cicely Tyson Over 40 lawmakers sign letter urging Merrick Garland to prioritize abolishing death penalty The Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history 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 HoyerHouse set for tight vote on COVID-19 relief package Key Democrat unveils plan to restore limited earmarks Overnight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission 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) KhannaOvernight Defense: Biden sends message with Syria airstrike | US intel points to Saudi crown prince in Khashoggi killing | Pentagon launches civilian-led sexual assault commission Biden 'disappointed' in Senate parliamentarian ruling but 'respects' decision Democrats look to improve outreach to Asian and Latino communities 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 ObamaObama opens up about singing 'Amazing Grace' after Charleston shooting: 'I've used up all my words' Exclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren Why the 'Never-Trumpers' flopped 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-CortezBudget Committee chair pledges to raise minimum wage: 'Hold me to it' Democrats scramble to rescue minimum wage hike Exclusive: How Obama went to bat for Warren MORE (D-N.Y.) and Lauren UnderwoodLauren UnderwoodNew cyber panel chair zeros in on election security, SolarWinds hack Overnight Health Care: New COVID-19 cases nationally drop below 100K for first time in 2021 | CDC warns states against lifting restrictions amid threat of virus variants | Health officials warn COVID-19 eradication unlikely Black maternal health omnibus package introduced by Democratic lawmakers 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 SchakowskyHouse Democrats press Facebook on role as a 'breeding ground for polarization' Facebook, Google, Twitter CEOs to testify at House hearing on misinformation Democrats introduce measure to boost privacy, security of health data during pandemic 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 KellyLawmakers emphasize prioritizing patients' needs in health care policy The Hill's Morning Report - Democrats ready mammoth relief bill for 10-day sprint Overnight Health Care: Biden officials announce funding to track virus variants | Senate Dems unveil public option proposal | White House: Teacher vaccinations not required for schools to reopen 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.