Tiny Tent Political Parties
After narrowly losing Tuesday’s Democratic Party primary to Chicago-area Congressman Dan Lipinski, challenger Marie Newman indulged herself with a concession speech perhaps unique in intra-party elections. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t a concession speech at all: Newman pointedly refused to congratulate her opponent or even acknowledged that he won.
"I would like Mr. Lipinski to have a very painful evening," she told her supporters. “So we’re going to wait.”
The following morning, with no more waiting to be done, she conceded on social media by boasting on Facebook that she had forced Lipinski to the left, and had “put him on notice.” It constituted the first congressional announcement speech of 2020. As for the 2018 primary season in Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District, it revealed much about current American politics, little of it pretty.
For starters, despite Lipinski’s win, this campaign underscored how some Democrats long for party purity, the opposite of a Big Tent political party. The challenge to Lipinski was fueled and funded mostly on the strength of one issue: abortion. A staunch Catholic, Lipinski follows church teaching on the so-called “life issues.” Like the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (and the pope), he opposes abortion, euthanasia, and capital punishment. On the first one, abortion, Lipinski is at odds with his party’s catechism.
“This was Dan Lipinski’s hardest race yet, and the fact that he won by such a narrow margin shows that progressives won’t lie down any more as our freedoms and fundamental values are threatened” – that’s how Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, phrased it. “This campaign garnered national attention for a reason: It was about more than just one seat, or one candidate.”
Hogue is correct, although not in the way she intends. It’s not about one seat, it’s about all the seats. That’s the share, 100 percent, that abortion rights advocates believe is rightfully theirs in the House Democratic caucus. It was not always so. In the early 1990s, when Democrats held 270 seats in the chamber, about one-third of them cast pro-life votes. By 2013, when the House tackled a bill that would have banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, Lipinski was one of only six Democrats in support. Today, only three are left -- three too many for groups such as NARAL and Planned Parenthood, which pumped $1.5 million into the race on Newman’s behalf.
This is not an accident. Not only was Marie Newman backed by outside single-issue groups and Democrats with national ambitions such as Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand, but Lipinski was also opposed by two other Chicago-area House colleagues, Jan Schakowsky and Luis Gutierrez.
One imagines they will have to kiss and make up, if only because Lipinski has close to a zero chance of losing in November. The reason? Well, that brings us to the other side of the electoral bracket, where the Republicans in Illinois’ 3rd District let a 70-year-old admirer of Adolf Hitler garner their nomination.
It’s true. Lipinski’s general election opponent is avowed racist named Arthur Joseph Jones. Yes, liberals and campus crazies hurl similar epithets at anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders these days, but Art Jones is the real article -- someone who’s been a Holocaust denier all of his adult life. Jones read “Mein Kampf” in his foxhole while serving in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War, joined the American Nazi Party, ran for mayor of Milwaukee as the candidate of the National Socialist White People’s Party, and now runs something called the America First Committee.
And he has some predictably awful ideas of what it means to put America first. Although he supported Donald Trump’s 2016 candidacy, he did so with convoluted logic. “He’s his own man,” Jones said at the time. “I like the fact that he doesn’t have to go hat-in-hand to Jewish billionaires to get money.” Later, he had second thoughts, and now calls the president “a Jew-loving fool” who “surrounds himself with hordes of Jews, including a Jew in his own family, that punk named Jared Kushner.”
To be fair, Illinois Republicans denounced Jones even before he ran, and have been doing so for a long time. Yet, in this age of thoroughly gerrymandered districts, they could recruit no one to run against Lipinski, leaving the field to this buffoon.
If there is a silver lining in any of this, it’s that the usually moribund political center put up a fight this time. You’d think, with 43 percent of Americans declining to identify with either political party, that it wouldn’t be so difficult to elect a few moderates here and there. But the ruling Republican-Democratic duopoly resists the kind of political reforms that would make Independent candidates viable, so those in the sensible middle have to be creative. For Lipinski, they rose to the occasion.
“The political center really struck back this time,” said Ryan Clancy, chief strategist for No Labels, a bipartisan political reform group. No Labels takes no position on social issues; it opposes the litmus tests demanded by each political party’s special interest groups – purifying rites that have driven the Democrats relentlessly leftward and the Republicans to the far right. Instead, it champions candidates who believe in political compromise. When it went to Lipinski’s aid, No Labels was defending one of its own: He’s one of the 48 members (half of them Democrats, half Republican) who make up the No Labels-sponsored House Problem Solvers Caucus.
But good government arguments only take a candidate so far. At some point they need money to campaign, if for no other reason than to combat the negative ads being aired against them. In the past, No Labels hasn’t been able to help much in that regard, but this year the organization has a war chest, administered under its affiliated Country Forward political action committee. Country Forward spent more than $1 million promoting Lipinski. It proved to be the difference.
“In this race, the challenge was to identify and motivate moderate voters – and to set up a contrast,” said Matt Kalmans, a political strategist for Country Forward. “Millions of dollars from outside spending was spent on advertising against [Lipinski] on social issues … and they never made a positive argument for their candidate. We concentrated on his record, how much he’s done for the district.”
No Labels leaders say they plan to get involved in dozens of races this year. They acknowledge that the bulk of this work must be done soon because by the time the general election rolls around it’s too late. “In nine out of 10 races,” noted Clancy, “the only elections that matter are the primaries.”
He’s right about that, although if you think about it -- and you consider the fact that parties in many states run closed primaries -- it’s a strong argument for a third party. One establishment political figure who gets this is much-maligned House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Asked three weeks ago if she supported Lipinsk’s re-election, Pelosi answered without hesitation. “Yes,” she said, “I do.” It was a brief moment of rationality. One wonders how many more we’ll have in this year’s midterms.