A rift between establishment and progressive Democrats made national headlines on Sept. 17 when Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democrat of New York, announced her support for Marie Newman—a challenger to Representative Daniel Lipinski, Democrat of Illinois, in the upcoming Third Congressional District primary. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez was not the first high-profile Democrat to back Ms. Newman for the March 2020 primary; her candidacy was endorsed by presidential hopeful Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts on Sept. 9.
Justice Democrats, the political insurgents who helped guide Ms. Ocasio-Cortez to a shocking primary victory over 10-term incumbent and Democratic Caucus Chair Joe Crowley in June 2018, are also backing Ms. Newman.
A member of the U.S. House of Representatives since 2005—occupying the seat held by his father, Bill Lipinski, for 22 years—Mr. Lipinski is no stranger to intraparty struggles. Described by Politico and The New York Times as a conservative Democrat (The Hill calls him “centrist”), Mr. Lipinski has often found himself at odds with his party colleagues. The Chicago-born congressman voted against the Affordable Care Act in 2010 and opted not to endorse Barack Obama for re-election in 2012.
As a pro-life Democrat, Mr. Lipinski is a member of an endangered species in U.S. politics.
But according to Mr. Lipinski, the Democratic opposition to him is laser-focused on one subject: his views on abortion.
As a pro-life Democrat, Mr. Lipinski is a member of an endangered species in U.S. politics. According to a 2018 Politico article, the Democrats for Life of America, a national political action group that calls itself “the pro-life voice and wing of the Democratic Party,” once boasted of a coalition of 43 House Democrats. But by 2018, nearly two decades after its establishment, the D.F.L.A. endorsed only four House and three Senate candidates.
Kristin Day, executive director of the D.F.L.A., said the national focus on this Illinois congressional race is “all about abortion.”
“It has nothing to do with Dan’s record.”
While Ms. Warren explicitly cited the issue of “reproductive rights” in her endorsement of Ms. Newman, Ms. Ocasio-Cortez issued a broader criticism of Mr. Lipinski’s Democratic bona fides. “The fact that a deep blue seat is advocating for many parts of the Republican agenda is extremely problematic,” she told The New York Times.
“[Ms. Ocasio-Cortez] should be more concerned about her own district,” said Ms. Day, objecting to the freshman congresswoman’s “very far-left views.”
Jacob Lupfer, an independent political consultant who has attended two national D.F.L.A. conferences, is uncertain how much Ms. Ocasio-Cortez can influence the race in Illinois. Mr. Lupfer is a strategist for the Pro-life Democratic Candidate PAC. “I doubt Chicagoans are looking to a freshman New York congresswoman for voting advice,” Mr. Lupfer told America via email.
The race asks a broader question: Is there a future for pro-life politicians within the Democratic Party? On Sept. 18, Steny Hoyer, Democrat of Maryland (D.-Md.), the House Majority leader, told journalists that his party remained open to anti-abortion lawmakers. However, a recent analysis by Fordham University ethicist Charles Camosy suggests dismal prospects for candidates like Mr. Lipinski. Mr. Camosy noted in a column for Religion News Service, “The evisceration of pro-life Democrats from Congress is all but complete.”
The race asks a broader question: Is there a future for pro-life politicians within the Democratic Party?
In a 2019 Pew Research Poll, 82 percent of Democrats and those who leaned Democratic said that “abortion should be legal in all or most cases.” Among liberal Democrats, support for legal abortion in all or most cases jumped to 91 percent. In May, the New York Times reporter Jonathan Martin simply asked: “Can a Democrat Oppose Abortion?”
Mr. Lipinski thinks so, rejecting any claim that he is out of step with his party. “I’m a Democrat. I plan to remain a Democrat. I certainly question this era of President Trump,” he told America. Mr. Lipinski noted that he shares his party’s focus on combating climate change and enjoys a high rating from the AFL-CIO labor union. He has also earned an A rating from the National Education Association.
At the same time, he has criticized Ms. Ocasio-Cortez for “her more extreme views” and called her Green New Deal proposal “a plan for socialism.” He views his challenger, Ms. Newman, in a similar light.
“Marie Newman now has thoroughly embraced extreme, radical positions that will not play well in the Third District,” he said.
While her success with Third District voters remains to be seen, Ms. Newman has secured the backing of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood.
“We should not have to ask our elected officials to trust women,” wrote Ben Hardin, campaign manager for Ms. Newman, in a statement to America. “Marie Newman firmly believes that everyone in Illinois’ Third District should have access to the medical care they and their doctor—not Congressman Lipinski—choose.”
Top Democrats have made clear their support for abortion access, while pro-life Democrats continue to fade from Washington.
Ms. Day also does not support her party’s progressive drift. “I think on a national level [the party] is moving in the wrong direction,” she said, arguing that its views on abortion rights may cost it the support of moderate Democrats in swing states.
Top Democrats have made clear their support for abortion access, while pro-life Democrats continue to fade from Washington. “The suggestion is [that being pro-life] is enough to disqualify you as a Democrat,” said Mr. Lipinski.
Ms. Day proposes campaign finance reform and reining in corporate influence on politics—not a quick and easy fix—as a way to throw a lifeline to pro-life candidates. The party, in her assessment, has become too dependent on “all the money the abortion lobby’s putting in.”
Mr. Lupfer sees another way forward. “The pro-life political groups will spend millions supporting Trump-disciple Republicans in the closest and most expensive House races,” he said. “It is an unconscionable waste of donors’ money, and it will fail. A far more effective and efficient strategy would be to take a page from the playbook of [Ms. Ocasio-Cortez] and the Justice Democrats: Compete in primaries, not general elections.”
In January, the Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson called out the “Trumpification of the pro-life movement,” noting that anti-abortion organizations like the March for Life and the Susan B. Anthony List “have featured Trump at major gatherings.” The alignment of pro-life voters with the Republican Party makes them a difficult, perhaps impossible, ally to the D.F.L.A. and Democratic candidates like Mr. Lipinski.
“The pro-life movement has destroyed the pro-life Democrat,” said Mr. Lupfer.
Calling the preponderance of funds flowing from pro-life donors to Republican candidates “a bad strategy,” Mr. Lupfer added, “The working relationship between the Democratic Party and the D.F.L.A. has diminished, and that’s a shame.”
But the D.F.L.A., like Mr. Lipinski, is not about to ditch its “Democratic” label. “We are Democrats, so we do believe there is a government responsibility to support those who need assistance,” said Ms. Day. She describes the D.F.L.A. platform as “whole life,” including support for paid maternity leave and objection to the death penalty and euthanasia.
The result of Mr. Lipinski’s race could suggest if that is a message still willing to be heard in the contemporary Democratic Party.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez did not respond to a request for comment for this report.