Chicago-Area Primary Morphs Into Test of Bernie’s Brand

March 9, 2018 Michael Bologna

This analysis was first available to Bloomberg Government subscribers.

Sen. Bernie Sanders is putting some of his popularity with Democrats on the line in Illinois, where on Thursday he took up sides against an incumbent congressman.

“Marie Newman has made it clear that she will be a champion for working families in Illinois, which is why I am proud to support her campaign” Sanders (I-Vt.) said in the endorsement announcement.

Political newcomer Newman is running in the March 20 Democratic primary against seven-term Rep. Dan Lipinski.

Two years ago, Democratic primary voters in Lipinski’s district favored Sanders over Hillary Clinton, so the endorsement will become a test of whether the “feel the Bern” fervor of 2016 can help other candidates in 2018.

A poll conducted last week for a group supporting Newman found a close race.

Raleigh, NC-based Public Policy Polling, which uses automated telephone surveys, said 43 percent of respondents favored Lipinski compared with 41 percent who said they backed Newman, with 15 percent unsure.

NARAL Pro-Choice America commissioned the survey of 648 likely Democratic primary voters. It was conducted Feb. 27 and Feb. 28 and had a 3.9 percent margin of error, according to PPP.

Newman has secured the support of Planned Parenthood, the Human Rights Campaign, and, as well as two of Lipinski’s congressional delegation colleagues, Reps. Jan Schakowsky and Luis Gutiérrez.

Key differentiators between the candidates are Obamacare — Lipinski voted against the final version — and abortion.

Lipinski is one of the leaders of the Bipartisan Congressional Pro-Life Caucus.

Social Issues v. Pocketbook Issues

Newman is a former marketing consultant and the founder of an anti-bullying nonprofit.

She has emphasized social issues, such as abortion and same-sex marriage. In an interview, she accused Lipinski of ignoring the views of his constituents.

“When you don’t understand the composition of the district, when you don’t poll, when you don’t do meet and greets, it’s a little tough to understand your district,” Newman said. “So people in the district are rightfully looking for someone who will engage with them and work with them as part of a team.”

Lipinski said he’s been a vigorous advocate on the pocketbook issues that are important to people in Chicago and the city’s southwest suburbs, and points to the backing of the Illinois AFL-CIO.

“I have focused, throughout my 13 plus years, on better jobs and taking care of the middle class,” he said in an interview. “The middle class keeps getting squeezed. The middle class needs a champion. That’s where I’ve always stood, that’s where I continue to stand and that’s the message I take out to the voters.”

The AFL-CIO has given Lipinski a 91 percent approval rating for votes important to labor and middle class voters, a lower score than the rest of the state’s Democrats.

Style, rather than substance, also could be at play, said Cynthia Canary, a founder of the non-partisan Illinois Campaign for Political Reform.

Lipinski has a low-key style that might work better in a general election than a primary fueled by activist voters, she said in an interview.

“He’s really bland. You don’t come back from his speeches all fired up,” she said. “He just doesn’t seize the voters’ imaginations.”

Channeling Frustration

The 3rd Congressional District is safe turf for Democrats, so no matter who gets the nomination it probably won’t affect control of the House.

That makes it the perfect place for the Sanders wing of the party to try to show that it’s gaining strength as the clout of old-style political machines is waning, said Kent Redfield professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

“Ward and township organizations are not as strong as they once were and there is less patronage,” Redfield said. “Traditional Democratic politics have been pretty non-ideological in a comparative sense. But now we see more progressive activity on the Democratic side.”

Also in the mix: more than a decade of grudge-holding on the part of some Democrats who resented the way Lipinski succeeded his father in Congress.

After 22 years office, William Lipinski easily won the 2004 primary. The elder Lipinski then retired, announcing his decision less than three months before the general election. His son replaced him on the general election ballot and won the seat.

Over the years, Lipinski has had only a handful of primary challengers and none since 2012.

The Democratic primary is the crucial vote in that district this year because the Illinois Republican Party failed to recruit a viable candidate, so by default the other major-party name on the November ballot will be Holocaust denier and white supremacist Arthur Jones.

The district has become more ethnically and racially diverse over the last decade.

It’s now about 33 percent Hispanic, 5.2 percent African-American and 4.2 percent Asian, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2016 American Community Survey. In 2000, minorities comprised about a tenth of the district’s population.

“Lipinski might not be as good a fit for his district as he used to be,” Redfield said.

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