If they want to flip Congress, Democrats must take a cue from the ferocious anti-abortion crusaders who helped Illinois Rep. Dan Lipinski win the primary, and amp up their ground game.
Y’all, it’s time for a wake-up call.
On Tuesday, Illinois held its primary election, picking party candidates to go on the ballot come November. For the most part, little was shocking—incumbent congressional and gubernatorial candidates all won their races, the GOP nominated an actual neo-Nazi—you know, the usual.
Still, one race drew far more attention than most, as Democratic congressman Dan Lipinski scraped out an extremely tight victory over political newcomer Marie Newman. Lipinski scored the party nomination, virtually guaranteeing him another two years in Congress (did we mention he’s running against a neo-Nazi?).
Lipinski isn’t your usual Democrat. As one of the few remaining Blue Dog Democrats, he spent over a decade in Congress opposing abortion rights, voting against Obamacare, the DREAM Act, and fighting against equal-rights protections for LGBTQ communities. Despite a treasure trove of anti-Democratic party votes, Lipinski still managed to defeat Newman head to head for the party nomination thanks in a large part to his incumbency, his family legacy (Lipinski won his seat after his father Bill retired from it in 2005), and years inside the political apparatus that is Chicago politics.
The data is still coming in to explain how Lipinski won his race and what it means for the Democratic Party as a whole as it heads into the 2018 midterms. For progressives who have been horrified by the destruction and division in the country since the election of Donald Trump, November stands looming like a reset button signaling a chance to win back the Senate and maybe even the House, too, and stop the continuing far-right agenda coming out of the White House.
I want it, too. Don’t think for a moment that I don’t. Still, I believe in preparing for the worst possible outcomes and frankly, I don’t know that either victory will actually happen. While it’s likely that the Democrats will make large gains in the House, I don’t think they will wrestle the majority away from the GOP. And even worse, I suspect that we will actually lose seats in the Senate once the dust settles after Election Day in November.
Lipinski’s win is a sign of how easily that could happen.
Progressive groups that backed Newman quickly dialed down the expectations game once the race was called. Progressive Change Campaign Committee and NARAL Pro-Choice America—both of which became extensively involved in Newman’s campaign to unseat Lipinski—announced what a victory it was just to have closed such a massive 30-point gap between the two candidates. They cite the vast advantages Lipinski had in political firepower, name recognition, finances, legacy, experience and so on, and all of those things are true. Primaries almost always benefit incumbents, and as I mentioned before, every incumbent running in Illinois won their nomination battles in both the federal and state races.
Then again, primaries usually appeal more to the extreme members of a party. As a politician with an undeniable and continuing record of standing opposed to almost every plank of the Democratic platform, Lipinski should have been an easy ouster. Primaries exist specifically to offer a chance to boot moderate politicians in safe party seats, and that should have been the case here, too. Progressives can say that the “Chicago Machine” was just too strong, but, as The Intercept reports, that didn’t stop a number of new, very progressive candidates in other races from winning their nominations, and that includes candidates in the same district as the Lipinski-Newman fight.
So what was different? Anti-abortion activists getting involved in the race.
The Susan B. Anthony List, one of the largest pro-life political action committes, made a large investment into the race by supporting Lipinski, one of the last remaining “pro-life Democrats” in Congress, and their support included targeted canvassing and get-out-the-vote efforts all throughout his district. SBA List is an anti-abortion, anti–Planned Parenthood political group which almost exclusively backs Republican candidates, and has been considered part of the reason that so few pro-life Democrats are in office (the group targeted many of them in 2010 for their votes to pass the Affordable Care Act, which the organization believes is an expansion of government funded abortion).
Lipinski is one of less than a handful of Democrats still in the organization’s good graces (Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson and Texas Democrat Henry Cuellar are the others), and SBA List rewarded him amply with their resources. According to their press release, SBAL spent “six figures” on digital ads and mail outreach and enlisted 70 canvassers who door-knocked “each of the 17,000 pro-life Democrat households twice in the final five days of the race.”
Did it work? It obviously didn’t hurt Lipinski at all. According to Public Policy Polling, a progressive polling group, the race results and two-point spread were roughly what polls were saying in the days prior to the primary. The biggest difference between Lipinski and Newman, PPP announced, was how their supporters felt about Trump. Of those who voted in the Democratic primary, nearly 20 percent approved of Trump as president, and of that group a whopping 85 percent cast a ballot for Lipinski over Newman.
Could Republicans have backed out of weighing in on their other races and chosen to take a Democratic ballot to cast votes for Lipinski? Newman backers suggest such a thing might have happened. “Even when we were canvassing, a lot of homes had both Jeanne Ives [GOP challenger to incumbent Republican Governor Bruce Rauner] and Dan Lipinski signs, so those people could have crossed over,” Newman campaign field manager Sophia Olazaba told The Intercept. And it’s true that some local pro-life organizations encouraged Republicans to do just that in order to help Lipinski win. Plus, turnout for Democrats was dramtically higher than the last few primaries, where as the GOP turnout was notably depressed.
But the final results in the GOP governor’s primary, which were also remarkably close, suggest that those who would be most tempted to swap ballots and weigh in on IL 3 just for the sake of abortion were probably far more likely to stick to a Republican ballot in order to try to oust incumbent Governor Rauner, instead.
The simple truth is that nearly 20 percent of those who voted in the Democratic primary of this very Democratic area of the state view Trump favorably, and those voters are keeping Lipinski in office. And the most logical explanation of how all of those voters ended up at the polls—be they actually Democrats or not—is that the Susan B. Anthony List got them there. The organization knocked thousands of very specific and targeted doors, and Lipinski won by less than 2,200.
Donald Trump is now president not because he was the best candidate, or because he received the most votes, but because political organizations on the ground figured out how to best target the exact subset of voters they needed in the exact states required in order to achieve an electoral college victory—and then get those voters out the door and to the polls. The 2016 election showed just how sophisticated their targeting apparatus was, and we can only assume their data has gotten better. The lesson of 2016 wasn’t that you need the most votes—it was that you need the right votes to amass the most power. In 2018 Republicans will attempt to do exactly that again – Lipinski was just their first step.
The Lipinski/Newman primary wasn’t just a proxy war for where the Democratic party is going in the future. There is no amount of back-bending and moderating that a Democrat can do—on abortion, on climate change, on LGBTQ rights, on education, on unions, on guns, on civil rights and so on. Doing so would bring a cohesive Democratic majority into power, especially since the more the party cedes in order to pick up votes on the right, the more it will lose on the left. Republicans, on the other hand, are escalating their “less is more” approach that they started via gerrymandering and voter suppression, and now have turned to Get Out the Vote strategy in order to coax just enough votes to win in just the right places that matter.
The race for Illinois District 3 was a testing ground, and it is one that will be replicated in 2018. Susan B. Anthony List isn’t shy about its future plans, and are actively canvassing in Florida, Missouri, Indiana, North Dakota, Ohio, and Wisconsin. They’ve developed specialized Hispanic outreach, and they are wooing Democratic voters. They know exactly who they need to get to the polls in order to flip all six Senate seats—and if the Democrats lose any one of them, there is no way they can reach a Senate majority in 2018.
This isn’t unwinnable. But the left has spent months predicting a blue wave and assuming that anger alone will be enough to win back Congress. We need to be invested on the ground already, knocking our own doors, making our own GOTV plans, preparing our own plans for who we bring to the polls and encouraging less enthusiastic voters to commit to Election Day. Lipinski’s win is a warning to us all: Anger isn’t enough, and we need to start working right now.
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