Center Holds for a Day, as No Labels Helps Right-Leaning Democrat Dan Lipinski Save His Seat From Progressive Challenger

By Eleanor Clift

For The Daily Beast
March 21, 2018

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The empire struck back Tuesday in Illinois.

After more than a year of the Democratic Resistance sucking up all the oxygen, Dan Lipinski, a 51-year-old conservative Democrat in a Southside Chicago working class district narrowly beat back a challenge from Marie Newman, a local activist endorsed by Bernie Sanders, Kirsten Gillibrand, Emily’s List, and an impressive array of progressive groups.

The primary was seen by both sides as emblematic of which wing of the party would dominate, and the surprise was not the narrowness of Lipinski’s win but that he won at all given all the energy on the Sanders side of the equation.

The Democratic establishment represented by the DNC and the DCCC had pretty much given up on Lipinski. No Labels, a bipartisan centrist group, was the only outside group that spent significantly in support of the seven-term Democrat.

“For us it was so important to make people understand all these races can’t be about one or two litmus test issues,” says Ryan Clancy, lead strategist for No Labels, whose ally Country Forward, put over a million dollars into the race to save Lipinski’s seat.

Lipinski is not pro-choice, but he had Nancy Pelosi’s endorsement. Despite the Speaker’s personal views, she’s always taken the position that it is self-defeating to turn the choice issue on abortion rights into a litmus test for party identity. If Democrats are to regain the majority in the House, they will have to win in districts that are not solidly blue.

One lesson from Lipinski’s win and before that the special election victory of Democrat Conor Lamb in a working-class district in Pennsylvania that had strongly supported Trump in 2016 is that lots of people may hold contrary views on social issues, but can be reached on bread-and-butter, kitchen table issues.

Lipinski, now on an easy path to an eighth term after Republicans nominated despite party’s leaders repudiation a Holocaust-denying Nazi, is a member of the House Problem Solvers Caucus (PSC), which has 48 members evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. They have formulated proposals on health care and immigration, but have not gotten a vote on those proposals in the gridlocked Congress.

No Labels expects to intervene in dozens of races this year against candidates on the left and the right, and they have the funding.

“This is No Labels 3.0,” says Bill Galston, a Brookings scholar who advises the group. “We learned early on we were going to have a hard time mobilizing the center unless we gave concrete assurances that we would have their back if they took tough decisions and tough votes.”

Financial investments in politics typically come from the left and the right, with the Koch Brothers and George Soros the poster boys. Mobilizing the center is a novel idea. “Many of them live in mortal fear of a primary. If we can show them that there’s an organized well-funded effort to protect them and push back against extremists, maybe we can embolden them to do the right thing even when it doesn’t make their base happy,” says Clancy.

No Labels criteria: One, if any of the Problem Solvers Caucus members is facing a credible challenge, the group will step in, as they did with Lipinski.

Two, if there’s an open seat where somebody is retiring “and the choice is between a future member of the PSC, or a flamethrower on the left or right,” they will step in. And thirdly, “we may go after some incumbents who are being challenged,” says Clancy.

No Labels and its PAC, Country Forward, are well funded. Ryan Clancy emailed at my request, the names of some of their biggest funders, three who lean left – Howard Marks with Oaktree Capital, Peter May with Trian Investors, and Peter Solomon, an investment banker—and three who lean right—Nelson Peltz with Trian Investors, Jerry Reinsdorf , owner of the Chicago Bulls and Chicago Red Sox, and Craig Duchossois, chairman and CEO of the Duchossois Group. “This really is a bipartisan effort,” Clancy wrote.

While the maligned and beleaguered center has bragging rights after Tuesday’s primary election in Illinois, the progressive groups that backed Marie Newman are not backing down and there are many more primary fights ahead.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee said in a statement: “Marie Newman did something few thought possible — she closed a 30-point gap against an entrenched incumbent. If she can come so close against an entrenched incumbent with all the power of incumbency and the local Democratic machine, progressives will win big in dozens of primaries this cycle when running on inspiring ideas against moderate Democrats who lack those advantages.”

As a conservative anti-choice Democrat, Lipinski is way over on the outer edge of where most Democrats are today. He voted against the Affordable Care Act initially on religious freedom grounds, and he has a long record of anti-LGBT votes.The Democratic Party of yesteryear had many lawmakers like him, but they have fallen out of favor with primary voters, just as their more moderate GOP counterparts have been hallowed out by the far right.

Lipinski Democrats are no longer the majority within the party, but the party needs them. Their voters gave Donald Trump the presidency.

In Pennsylvania, where Democrats hold just five of the 18 congressional districts, a new map drawn by the state Supreme Court has made 11 of those districts competitive for Democrats. The same team that did the Conor Lamb victory worked for Lipinski, so there’s a pattern here that they hope can be replicated in the primaries ahead with candidates that are not necessarily drawn from the Resistance, but can win in November, and legislate across party lines.