|Much of the energy fueling a Democratic and progressive surge this year comes from highly motivated women activists.|
If progressives were disappointed by the choices voters made at the top of the ballot in the Illinois Primary on Tuesday, they had a lot to celebrate in other races where they did just fine, thank you. In fact, they shifted the center of gravity among Democrats substantially to the left and proved the power of their activist-driven grass roots style is effective.
3rd Congressional District
Even in the most high-profile race which got national attention and which the progressive favorite lost by an eyelash was a win of sorts. The story of that race is actually astonishing. Marie Newman was one of the wave of women candidates motivated by Hillary Clinton’s loss and Donald Trumps ascension as a President determined to un-do every progressive advance since the New Deal. Although a veteran activist who had had directed a national anti-bullying nonprofit and was Illinois spokesperson for the gun control group Moms Demand Action, Marie Newman was virtually unknown to the public. As late as February, after months of campaigning, her own internal poll showed a name recognition in the 3rd District of only 13%. And she was an abortion rights defender in a heavily Catholic District with many conservative white ethnic voters that stretches from Chicago’s Southwest Side through largely blue-collar suburbs to the cornfields around Romeoville.
|Progressive feminist Marie Newman nearly upset Blue Dog Dem Dan Lipinski.|
By contrast her opponent could have been the dictionary example of an entrenched incumbent. Dan Lipinski had already served seven terms in Congress and commanded a well oiled political organization with the firm backing of the Cook County and state party apparatus. Moreover, he was the scion of a political dynasty sometimes called the Polish Kennedys. Dan’s father, William preceded him in Congress and after several terms handed the District over to his son on a platter. Together father and son sat in Congress for 35 years.
Already noted as staunch anti-abortion politician, Lipinski proved to be one of the most conservative Democrats in Congress on a wide range of issues frequently supporting Republicans in critical votes. He was an ardent opponent of Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act and voted repeatedly to repeal it. He also balked on civil rights issues, Gay rights, gun control, and immigration reform. Lipinski became the chair of the notorious Blue Dog caucus of conservative Democrats and the target of liberal and progressive scorn. Yet party leaders defended Lipinski for “reflecting his district.”
As late as January polls showed Newman down 24 points to the incumbent. But that was better than other underfunded upstart challenger had ever managed, and her activist fueled campaign was showing signs of life. Encouraged Emily’s List, NARAL Pro-Choice America, Planned Parenthood, and other liberal and progressive organizations began to heavily invest in the campaign with money, professional expertise, and even boots on the ground. The Blue Dogs rallied to Lipinski’s defense along with hefty expenditures by the allegedly centrist groups No Labels and Country Forward, and faux feminist anti-abortion organization Susan B. Anthony List. The race became a proxy fight between factions vying for control of the Party.
While Lipinski’s influx of money kept him treading water, Newman use hers to create a groundswell of support. In the end she fell just a hair short. Two more days of hard campaigning might have pushed her over the top. As of Wednesday morning, she trailed Lipinski 49% to 51% with 98% of precincts reporting only 2,124 votes down.
Feminists and progressives were elated by what had been accomplished and status quo, establishment Democrats were thrown into a panic with similar races coming up in several districts around the country.
Closer to my home, progressives won nominations in crowded fields for two seats where entrenched Republicans are believed to be in danger this fall—the 6th and 14th Districts. Neither of those two candidates are the ones I endorsed in those races, but it is a tribute to the talent depth of the field that there were multiple outstanding candidates to choose from. I am entirely satisfied with the choices voters made and both winners have excellent prospects against now vulnerable Republicans.
6th Congressional District
|Sean Casten scored a win in his race with his platform for action on climate change, the environment, and respect for science.|
Those trends naturally attracted national attention and the district is now considered a winnable swing district. In the end Sean Casten, a Downers Grove environmental engineer and entrepreneur ran largely on climate issues, respect for science, and creative economic development emerged at the top of a field of seven. Casten was rated the favorite in the race and drew support from national environmental PACs, Democratic organizations, as well as key Illinois Democrats. He ran a smart, well financed campaign with enough money for significant media buys.
Kelly Mazeski, a former chemist and financial advisor, who made healthcare and women’s rights her signature issues gave Casten a close race. Endorsed by Emily’s List and a slew women in Congress led by Jan Schakowsky. She was also my pick. Mazeski held a slender lead late into the night while thousands of DuPage county ballots could not be counted because of a computer glitch. When they were finally accessed Wednesday morning Casten went ahead 18,863 to 16,686 with the other candidates trailing behind.
Mazeski graciously conceded and pledged to support and work with Casten to defeat incumbent Pete Roskam, as did the others in the race. Democrats and progressive in the district will be united going forward.
Together all the Democrats got 62,990 votes. Final totals for Roskam, who ran unopposed in the Republican primary, have surprisingly not been released, but given the strong Democratic turn out on election day I would not be surprised if his totals were less.
The District, which was already listed as one of the top 10 most competitive in the country, just heated up even more. Roskam, who trailed in fundraising through the primaries, is sitting on a $ 2 million plus campaign fund and can expect money to come pouring in from the Party and from a plethora of right-wing PACS. That will be matched by the Democratic Congressional Campaign fund, Democratic National Committee, and a host of liberal, progressive, and environmental funds. Expect one of the most expensive races in this election cycle.
In addition, Casten will benefit from a strong local activist base and will attract volunteers and canvassers from around the country. Dems will have the boots on the ground advantage.
In addition to his environmental themes Casten will hit Roskam hard on his votes to kill the Affordable Care Act, for the disastrous tax bill, immigration reform, and abortion rights. He will also slam the incumbent for dodging town hall meetings and other opportunities to hear from constituents since Trump’s election. He will probably continue to evade all but the most tightly controlled public appearances and agree to as few debates or candidate forums as possible. He will run an expensive media campaign and be heavily dependent on attack ads placed by those right wing PACS.
Expect a tight and exciting race.
14th Congressional District
|Lauren Underwood on the line with supporters calling out Randy Hultgren on health care. That focus resonated with voters.|
Despite the national spotlight on the 6th District, Lauren Underwood’s achievement in the 14th was even more impressive and could portend almost revolutionary change in the sprawling district, another longtime Republican stronghold. Underwood was a blow out winner in a seven-person race earning 28,047 votes, 57% of the total vote. She left Mathew Brolley, the highly touted Mayor of Montgomery, who had the almost unanimous support of party leaders, local elected Democrats, labor, and most of the newspapers, in the dust of second place with only 6,538 votes, 13.4%. My pick, Jim Walz who ran against incumbent Randy Hultgren two years ago and exceeded expectations, lagged in third place with 4,796 votes and 9.8%.
Underwood, a registered nurse and former senior policy advisor in Barack Obama’s Department of Health and Human Services, ran a campaign focused on health care and women’s rights. Her campaign picked up steam with the critical support of Emily’s List and Off the Sidelines PAC which enabled her to get on the air and in social media with an effective advertising campaign. But a raft of dedicated activist volunteers, many of them inspired by the Women’s March and by Medicare for All campaigns, really fueled her success across the District.
As her strength as a candidate became more obvious, many Party leaders backing Brolley were thrown into a near panic because they were convinced a Black woman could not win in an overwhelmingly White district. But they were unable to get an effective handle on an attack ad campaign by surrogates that did not come off as blatantly racist. Ms. Underwood’s closet seems uncluttered by any whiff of scandal. And while the District certainly has its share of Trump supporters with white panic over losing place and privilege, establishment Dems seem to forget voters embraced Barack Obama and that Black candidates like Secretary of State Jesse White have frequently out performed the rest of the Democratic ticket.
Underwood is an attractive, articulate, and charismatic campaigner who connects with even skeptical voters at public events. With a high turn-out of motivated Democrats and independents a discouraged and fragmented Republican base that may not turn out in their usual numbers either because they despise Trump on one hand or believe that Governor Rauner has betrayed the conservative agenda, Underwood has a real shot at carrying off a real upset in November.
It is possible that Democrats could end up surrounding Chicago and Cook County Democratic Congressional Districts including the Lakefront 10th District already represented by Brad Schneider, through the 6th and 14th, to Bill Foster’s 11th District in the southwest suburbs. And wouldn’t that shake things up!