Stung by losses, progressive women aim for a win in Illinois

CHICAGO (AP) — Things were gloomy inside Elizabeth Warren’s Illinois campaign headquarters the day after Super Tuesday, where it had become clear the Massachusetts senator’s presidential bid was coming to an end. Staff in Chicago “floated around like ghosts” and tried to figure out what the roughly 40 people showing up for that night’s phone bank should tell voters, organizer Cat Valdez recalled.

Another staffer came up with an idea: They would make calls for Marie Newman, a progressive trying to unseat Chicago-area Rep. Dan Lipinski, a staunch abortion opponent and one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress. By the end of the night the Warren team had made about 4,000 calls, some of them through tears.

“We all had this frenetic energy of ‘We have to do something,’” Valdez said. “It was something that was so comforting.”

Warren volunteers aren’t the only ones looking for a bright spot for the women’s movement and turning their eyes to Newman. For many women’s groups and female voters, her rematch with Lipinski is no longer just a chance to oust an incumbent they oppose but has become a moment to prove their 2018 surge still has power.

“The stakes in this race couldn’t be clearer,” said Mairead Lynn, who has been on the ground in Illinois for Emily’s List, which supports female candidates and abortion rights and is backing Newman. “Since 2016, women have stood up and fought back against extreme anti-women politicians and that’s exactly what’s going to happen” in Illinois’ 3rd district.

Women’s groups have reason to feel deflated. Following several years of historic gains for women — including a record six women running for president — Warren was the last of the major female candidates to quit the race when she dropped out the day after the Chicago phone bank. It’s now a contest between two 70-something white men, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Sanders, the more progressive of the two, has slipped behind.

Meanwhile, progressive candidate Jessica Cisneros of Texas, a 26-year-old immigration attorney who was trying to unseat conservative Democratic U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, lost her primary race. So did Cristina Tzintzun Ramirez, who lost the Democratic primary for Senate in Texas to M.J. Hegar, the establishment-backed candidate who will take on incumbent GOP Sen. John Cornyn.

Both Newman and Cisneros were among the candidates affected when party leaders and House Democrats’ campaign arm announced last year that it wouldn’t do business with any outside companies or vendors that worked for a primary challenger. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee move angered progressives like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who defeated an incumbent congressman in 2018. They called the “blacklist” divisive and said it would stifle efforts to elect more women, make Congress more diverse and reflect the changing views of the Democratic electorate.

Newman, who came within 2 points of defeating Lipinski in 2018, has said she lost vendors early in her campaign because of the rule. But her campaign has been buoyed by support from other groups, including a PAC that Ocasio Cortez created to help progressive challengers and abortion rights advocates like Emily’s List, NARAL Pro-Choice America and Planned Parenthood Votes. She also has endorsements from Warren, Sanders, Sens. Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand and Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot.

Lipinski first took office after his father, who held the seat for over two decades, stepped down after the 2004 primary. That allowed Democratic party leaders to put the younger Lipinski on the ballot in his place. The heavily Democratic district includes working-class neighborhoods on Chicago’s southwest side — where Lipinski has had strong support, particularly from fellow Catholics — and stretches into suburban areas. While it’s historically been a socially conservative area, it’s gotten younger and more diverse, with Hispanics now making up about one-third of the population. In 2016 the district supported Sanders over Hillary Clinton for president.

Lipinski, who is Illinois’ senior member on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, argues that he’s delivered for the district. He’s criticized Newman for trying to make abortion a “lightning rod issue” and using it to attract contributions from groups that support abortion rights. It’s not what voters in the district want to talk about, said Lipinski campaign spokeswoman Sally Daly.

“They are asking him about issues like healthcare and prescription drug costs, what he is doing to help protect social security and what is being done to ease traffic congestion and improve train service in their communities,” Daly said.

Newman, who supports “Medicare for All” and abortion rights, said her views are more in line with the changing district, which she says has moved more to the left under President Donald Trump.

“This is a real clear choice for people,” Newman said. “They understand that they can have a real Democrat with a real plan, with real specifics and actionable items around health care and immigration, and working families issues like pay leave. universal childcare, empowering unions. They see that I have real ideas instead of platitudes.”

Prior to 2018, Lipinski’s toughest races were his first two primaries, which he won with just over half of the vote, with other votes split between two other candidates in 2006 and three others in 2008. This year there are also two other candidates in the race, both first-timers who have raised considerably less money than Newman or Lipinski.

Rush Darwish is a Palestinian American who has raised money from Arab American communities and has amped up his attacks on Newman in recent days. Charles Hughes is a union mechanic who once was a precinct captain for Lipinski’s father.