The day after Alabama lawmakers passed a law to ban nearly all abortions in the state, House Democrats confronted some tricky optics: a Chicago Business report revealed that the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was scheduled to headline a June fundraiser for the most staunchly pro-life Democrat left in Congress.
The move raised howls of protest from progressives, who have sought to make that Democrat, Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL), the next moderate to be unseated by a challenger to their left. The passage of the Alabama law and restrictive abortion laws in other states has only intensified that push.
"It's hypocritical for the Democratic Party leadership to continue to protect Lipinski while claiming to fight against the attacks on reproductive rights in states like Georgia and Alabama." said Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats.
In the 2018 primary, Lipinski was nearly defeated by Marie Newman, who is competing against him again in 2020 in this safely blue Chicago-area district. Unlike last time, however, Lipinski has the DCCC chair on his side: Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-IL) has made a promise to back all incumbents, and has donated to Lipinski from her personal committee in addition to appearing at a fundraiser to benefit him.
Progressive ire directed at the DCCC is hardly new. Only months into the 2020 cycle, the party’s official House campaign arm had already incensed progressives for codifying a policy to not do business with vendors who support primary challengers to incumbents—slammed as a “blacklist” by some on the left.
But the Lipinski episode transcends the typical left vs. establishment drama that has permeated the DCCC in recent years. It raises a difficult question for Democrats: At a moment when abortion rights are more vulnerable than they have been in decades, does their “big tent” have room for members who do not support those rights?
Lipinski thinks so, at least. “This is exactly the wrong time to be forming a circular firing squad when we need to be together, work together, to beat President Trump in 2020, as well as keeping the House and winning the Senate,” he told The Daily Beast on Thursday.
“Certainly, Cheri Bustos is making it very clear as chair of the DCCC her support for me, and I think the party leadership understands the need for not pushing people out right when we’re trying to work together,” he added.
But for a diverse set of Democrats, having an opponent of abortion in their ranks is increasingly untenable–especially one like Lipinski. Though there are several other House Democrats with anti-abortion views, Lipinski is the only House Democrat to have received a zero percent score from NARAL Pro-Choice America, a leading advocacy group. He is one of two House Democrats to have a 75 percent score from the National Right to Life Committee.
Lipinski, who has said he believes life begins at conception, has resisted leaving the party over his views on abortion. According to a 2018 report from the pro-choice outlet Rewire News, Lipinski told a pro-life gathering “I’ve always believed, and I always say, the Democratic Party says it stands up for the little guy, and there’s no one who is more vulnerable than the unborn, who need the protection. And so I’m hanging in there.”
Since arriving in Congress in 2005, Lipinski has been a reliable vote for anti-abortion legislation.
In particular, he has voted for bills to grant legal personhood rights to fetuses, and he voted against the Affordable Care Act, arguing that it would help fund access to abortion. At press time, Lipinski’s office had not responded for request for comment on his views on Alabama’s abortion bill.
Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), who successfully primaried an incumbent himself, was the first to publicly hit Bustos for fundraising on behalf of Lipinski on Wednesday night.
“It’s tone deaf for the DCCC to be supporting Lipinski when Roe vs. Wade is under threat in a way it hasn’t been in my whole lifetime,” Khanna told The Daily Beast on Thursday. “This is a moment where the Democratic Party needs to be doing everything possible to affirm the constitutional right of a woman to choose. It makes no sense to be supporting someone who doesn’t recognize that right.”
A DCCC spokesperson said that Bustos does not agree with Lipinski on abortion, but “she made a promise to stand behind all of our incumbents in their campaigns—from the Blue Dogs to the progressives. She keeps her word, and she is focused on defeating Republicans so we can continue growing the most diverse Majority in our nation’s history.”
But Bustos’ fundraiser has only emboldened those on the left who had been preparing for primary battles in safe blue districts already. And even more institutional Democratic-aligned groups like Planned Parenthood Action Fund, EMILY’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America backed Newman earlier this month. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) did as well, as she had done last cycle.
“She’s in a position of defending a man who is in the House because of a reactionary, right-wing group,” Sean McElwee, co-founder of the progressive think tank Data for Progress said, referring to canvassing efforts on Lipinksi’s behalf from the pro-life organization Susan B. Anthony List in 2018.
“I think there’s a very real chance he loses. And I think there’s a very real chance that a number of incumbents lose and I think this is in a lot of ways her Waterloo,” McElwee added. “This is the proof positive that the method of going to war with progressives is not actually the best path forward for the party.”
In 2018, Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi ultimately backed Lipinski in the primary. But she faces pressure to remain neutral heading into 2020. “I hope she and others will stay out of it, given how choice is now under threat and how vulnerable it is,” said Khanna. Pelosi’s office did not respond to request for comment.
On Thursday, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) told The Daily Beast that discussions were happening among progressives concerning the DCCC’s support for Lipinski.
“If we don’t really approach this and make the hard decisions we need to make as a party about who we are and what we stand for, we cannot say that we’re fighting for women’s rights if we’re fundraising for people and if we’re, as an apparatus, actively supporting candidates who want to take our rights away,” she said.
“I just don’t understand how this is even a thing.”
Two former DCCC staffers, both of whom identified with the establishment wing of the party, echoed Ocasio-Cortez’s frustrations. “This is not activists vs. the DCCC on this issue,” one said. “This is 2019, we’re talking about Chicago, Illinois—the guy is not pro-choice.”
“There’s no room for him anymore,” the other former DCCC staffer said. “There’s no room for this anymore. Maybe they could 10 years ago, but I just don’t see now how they can compromise on this.”
“I try to defend the DCCC at any cost, and this is just nuts to me.”