Rep. Dan Lipinski almost lost his primary on Tuesday night against a challenger who had never run for office before.
The fact that Marie Newman, a first-time progressive candidate inspired to run in part by the election of President Donald Trump, almost beat Lipinski, a rare anti-abortion Democrat and an entrenched multi-term incumbent, says a lot about the country as a whole.
In the wake of Trump’s election, voters are especially energized around issues that have sometimes been dismissed as “identity politics” — reproductive and other civil rights. Issues that Newman, who supports abortion rights, made central to her campaign. And even though Newman didn’t win, the fact that she came so close is an encouraging sign for the wave of women in difficult races this year.
Newman came from behind and almost won
Newman started the race far behind her opponent. Polls in January gave Lipinski a 24-point lead, according to USA Today, and a February survey commissioned by the Lipinski campaign put Newman’s name recognition in the district at just 13 percent.
While Newman had directed a national anti-bullying nonprofit and served as a state spokesperson for the gun control group Moms Demand Action, she had never run for office before. Lipinski, meanwhile, had served seven terms in Congress, taking over from his father, William Lipinski — together, the two had served a combined 35 years.
William Lipinski had a major hand in getting his son into Congress in the first place, according to David Bernstein of Chicago magazine, who wrote in 2010 that “after winning the 2004 primary election William withdrew and then urged Democratic Party leaders to slate Daniel — living in Tennessee at the time — virtually assuring his son’s victory against token Republican opposition.”
Despite Lipinski’s long entrenchment in Chicago politics, Newman was able to make up nearly all of her polling deficit. As of Wednesday morning, Lipinski was ahead 51 percent to 49 percent with 98 percent of districts reporting, according to CNN — a lead of about 2,124 votes.
“After reviewing the results, we know that we lost by a thin margin,” Newman said in a statement conceding the race on Wednesday. “It was a good fight and I am so proud of the grassroots movement we built.”
Newman had help in her fight, including support from progressive groups like NARAL Pro-Choice America; Emily’s List, which helps elect pro-choice Democratic female candidates to office; and Planned Parenthood. But Lipinski had help too, including a seven-figure investment from the centrist groups No Labels and Country Forward, and a six-figure spend by the anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List, which bought Facebook ads, dispatched canvassers to knock on doors, and sent direct mail asking voters to “imagine someone killing a 7-pound baby for any reason, or no reason at all.”
Newman’s performance could be good news for reproductive rights, and for candidates like her
Much of Newman’s campaign focused on painting Lipinski as out of touch with his district on a number of issues, including health care (he voted against the Affordable Care Act), immigration, and reproductive rights. These issues are especially important to Democrats in the wake of Trump’s election, according to research by Jennifer Lawless, director of the Women & Politics Institute at American University. And Newman’s strong performance on Tuesday showed that her approach, while not quite enough to push her over the top, still resonated with Chicago-area voters.
Newman may also have succeeded in pushing Lipinski to the left. “Since we started our campaign, Dan Lipinski has moved his position on health care, a path to citizenship, and the need for a fair minimum wage,” she said in her concession statement. “We put him on notice that we expect better for all of the people in our district.”
Meanwhile, the fact that Newman was able to perform so well against an incumbent could be a good sign for the wave of women running for office this year, many of them in tough races. An NPR analysis published on Tuesday cautioned that “the influx of women candidates, beyond being heavily Democratic, features a glut of Democratic women running in races currently considered to be easy Republican wins.”
Specifically, 49 percent of Democratic women running for congressional or gubernatorial seats, not including incumbents, are in “likely” or “safe” Republican districts, NPR’s Danielle Kurtzleben wrote.
Some of those women are sure to lose in November (or in their primaries before then). But Newman’s relative success suggests that the right newcomer can motivate voters this year, even against a powerful incumbent.
“The momentum is with Democratic pro-choice women,” said a spokesperson for Emily’s List, citing historic victories for women in the Virginia state legislature last year, as well as more recent wins at the state and local level. Female first-time candidates endorsed by Emily’s List this election cycle include Gina Ortiz Jones, who would be the first lesbian, first Iraq War veteran, and first Filipina American to hold a House seat in Texas if she wins in the state’s 23rd District in November, according to HuffPost.
Newman, meanwhile, is focused on the future, pledging to work to unseat Lipinski in 2020. As Erin Vilardi, founder and CEO of VoteRunLead, told NPR, a credible run in one election can help a candidate get more name recognition and party clout for a future run.
Whether or not she decides to run again, her primary race showed that a female first-time candidate running on a progressive platform can mount a serious challenge to a longtime incumbent — an important lesson for November and beyond.