Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Congressman Dan Lipinski of Illinois, a full one-third of the Democrats’ pro-life caucus in the House, was first targeted for purging by progressives in 2018. Despite the best efforts of the abortion lobby and leftist luminaries like Gloria Steinem and Bernie Sanders, Lipinski survived that primary challenge—from Marie Newman—by a hair. He then returned to Congress to commit such progressive apostasies as signing a friend of the court brief that called for overturning Roe v. Wade.

In Tuesday’s Illinois primary, Marie Newman is back for Round 2. Sanders carried the district in the 2016 presidential primary and was supposed to put Newman over the top this time. Instead, Sanders is on political life support and it is unclear if his revolutionaries will be storming the polls one last time or staying home dejected. Fears of coronavirus may disproportionately deter Lipinski’s older voter base, creating an additional x factor. In other words, anything could happen in Tuesday’s election, and every vote will count.

Lipinski has represented this very blue Chicagoland district since 2005. He was preceded in the seat by his father, who became the local congressman in 1983 and decades later engineered the hand-off to his son. The Lipinski family’s base of support has long come from unions and their fellow Catholics. Newman and the sizable progressive coalition behind her are betting that a different type of Democratic voter, less religious and less blue-collar, will turn out to put her over the top this time.

In 2016, Donald Trump peeled off just enough of the Lipinski-type voters elsewhere in the Midwest to land himself in the White House. Trump’s victory and Newman’s 2018 defeat should have led Democrats to have more tolerance for the one-fifth to one-third of Democrats who still identify as pro-life. Instead, the party has bowed all the more to the forces of abortion absolutism. Even Joe Biden has fully embraced the abortion orthodoxy. 

Biden began his career in the Senate saying, “When it comes to issues like abortion, amnesty, and acid, I’m about as liberal as your grandmother.” The so-called Biden Amendment, a 1981 law, banned funding for abortion-related biomedical research abroad. Yet Biden has steadily marched left with his party, if at a slower pace. As he brags now, he turned “Bork” into a verb and indirectly led to the nomination of Justice Anthony Kennedy, a substitution of monumental importance for the causes of life and marriage. In 2008, Biden was still touting his position “against partial birth abortion and federal funding” in his book Promises to Keep. Now, though, he has forgotten those promises: In 2019 Biden declared that he opposed the Hyde Amendment, which bars public funding for most abortions, thereby wiping away his last vestiges of moderation on the issue.

The non-negotiable nature of abortion rights in today’s Democratic politics has put a target on the backs of recalcitrant pro-lifers like Lipinski. So far, however, the shots fired from the left have narrowly missed. Most recently, border district Congressman Henry Cuellar defeated a primary challenge from Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old attorney known to some as “the AOC of Texas.” Cisneros did have the support of New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, plus that of Bernie Sanders and the abortion lobby. Cuellar’s victory is a reminder that, while things like President Trump’s rhetoric and policies on immigration may drive Hispanics to the Democrats, many of these often traditionalist and religious voters would actually prefer a candidate who is also against abortion. Thanks to Cuellar’s success, a House of Representatives that once had well over a hundred pro-life voting Democrats in the 1970s will continue to be home to at least one.

The third anti-abortion Democrat left in the House is Collin Peterson. The rural Minnesota district he has represented since 1991 has trended more and more toward the GOP and went to Trump in 2016 by 30 points. Democrats are unlikely to take aim at Peterson in a primary because they know that taking him down would likely flip the seat to the Republicans. As it is, Peterson faces a competitive general election race to come. 

In short, Democrats will begrudgingly tolerate a pro-lifer that wins where a typical pro-choice Democrat would not. One can add Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin to this category. Beyond these outliers in red realms, though, it appears that party power brokers will not tolerate any diversity of thought on abortion. Cuellar’s primary victory suggests that, even in a presidential election year when turnout is up, far from all Democratic voters agree with their leadership. 

A Lipinski win would further confound the left’s conventional wisdom, which holds that being a Democrat is synonymous with being pro-abortion. Whether such victories might convince Biden to tack back toward the center as the nominee remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that Lipinski, who holds a doctorate in political science and previously taught at Notre Dame, likely knows more than most about the once strong block of pro-life House Democrats that has been whittled down to three. Whether he dodges the latest bullet being fired his way and again joins Cuellar in Congress in 2021 is an open question.

John Murdock is an attorney and writer who now lives in Idaho.

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles