Dan Lipinski’s loss seen as turning point for pro-life Dems, blow to big tent politics

Businesswoman Marie Newman and her pro-choice allies ousted Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., an eight-term, pro-life incumbent on Tuesday, and in doing so, ignited accusations that the Democratic Party had solidified a hostile apparatus for members who oppose abortion.

The narrow loss for Lipinski marked the end of an era in which his father -- another pro-life Democrat -- held that seat since 1983. The younger Lipinski’s loss came as the abortion debate intensified with national and state-level laws bringing an already hot-button issue to the forefront of political battles.

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Planned Parenthood Votes, a political project of the nation’s largest abortion provider, recently announced its most ambitious electoral effort to date with $45 million in spending nationwide. That included funding for a $1.4 million initiative -- comprising direct mail and digital and television ad buys -- it and other pro-choice groups led, creating what pro-life leaders are describing as an onslaught of negative ads against Lipinski.

Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., an eight-term, pro-life incumbent on Tuesday, was ousted in a Democratic primary on Tuesday.

Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., an eight-term, pro-life incumbent on Tuesday, was ousted in a Democratic primary on Tuesday. (Reuters/Kamil Krzacznski)

"I think they can claim it," Marjorie Dannenfelser, head of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List, told Fox News when asked about the impact of groups like NARAL and Planned Parenthood Votes on Tuesday’s election. Lipinski similarly pointed to the issue in a statement provided to Fox News.

"There was one issue that loomed especially large in this campaign, the fact that I am pro-life.  I was pilloried in millions of dollars of TV ads and mailers.  I was shunned by many of my colleagues and other Democratic Party members and operators because of my pro-life stance.  The pressure in the Democratic Party on the life issue has never been as great as it is now," he said.

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In the days after Tuesday’s primary, it’s unclear what exactly drove voters to the polls. Lipinski, whose team touted his support among older voters, could have lost needed turnout due to social distancing guidance surrounding the coronavirus. Planned Parenthood Votes, however, maintains that Lipinski’s record was a major factor in his loss, and that its status as a trusted third-party helped validate Illinois voters’ opposition to abortion regulations.

The group said its internal polling -- conducted in conjunction with EMILY's List, NARAL, SEIU, and other organizations -- showed a majority (62 percent) of Lipinski’s residents saying they were less likely to vote for him after learning about his anti-abortion views (opposing abortion access, voting to defund Planned Parenthood, and receiving money from pro-life groups). They also point to national polls showing support for Roe v. Wade -- the landmark Supreme Court decision blocking certain state-level abortion restrictions.

It’s unclear whether those polls asked about specific restrictions on abortion, but pro-life groups say voters were closer to Lipinski than the rest of his party on those particulars. In-person surveys administered by Students for Life showed about 70 percent of Lipinski’s residents overwhelmingly opposing taxpayer funding for abortion and favoring restrictions on the procedure after five months.

After Newman’s 2018 loss, she out-fundraised Lipinski in a political climate increasingly dominated by concerns about health care and abortion. The stakes have “never” been higher, Planned Parenthood Votes executive director Jenny Lawson previously said.

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Lipinski opposed recent efforts to weaken Obamacare but initially opposed the law partially due to abortion-related provisions. That was a “watershed moment,” according to Dannenfelser, who said Obama “helped crystallize complete polarization of the issue.” Dannenfelser previously worked for a pro-life Democrat in Congress and directed the pro-life caucus.

Derrick Jones, the chief marketing officer for the National Right to Life Committee, charged that Tuesday’s results reflected the culmination of the party’s decadeslong drift towards extremism on the issue. Lipinski’s primary loss was particularly symbolic since he co-chairs the pro-life caucus, said Jones, whose organization sent pro-Lipinski mailers in his district.

Around Democrats for Life’s founding in the late 1990s, the group listed more than 40 pro-life Democrats in Congress. Today, the number is much smaller and a far cry from the majorities Danenfelser says she fought to build in the late 80s. For example, only three Democrats, including Lipinski, voted in February to reconsider a bill that would mandate medical care for infants who survive abortion attempts. Party leadership had blocked it dozens of times from coming to the floor. And both NARAL, which endorsed Newman, and Obama have opposed those types of measures.

Polling from the Women Speak Out PAC, which is affiliated with SBA List, showed 75 percent of likely Democratic primary voters in Lipinski’s district supported protections for babies who survive failed abortions.

Democrats for Life executive director Kristen Day, who also worked for a pro-life Democrat in Congress, suggested the groups like SBA List didn't do enough to support Lipinski. But more so, Day put the onus on party leadership, which Danenfelser says “watched [Lipinski] die” in his primary.

The Illinois Democratic Party and Democratic National Committee (DNC) did not respond to Fox News’ requests for comment.

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“We need to get rid of Tom Perez," Day said, citing to the DNC chair's position on pro-life Democrats. Newman didn't just receive endorsements from progressive leaders and Illinois lawmakers. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), which typically supports incumbents, also offered what’s been described as tepid support for Lipinski’s re-election.

In a statement provided to Fox News, DCCC Chair Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., praised Lipinski’s service. But it's been pointed out that she backed out of a Lipinski fundraiser amid pressure over his pro-life record. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., traveled to Texas to campaign for Rep. Henry Cuellar, an anti-abortion Democrat, but didn’t do the same for Lipinski.

"Over the years I’ve watched many other politicians succumb to pressure and change their position on this issue," Lipinski said.  "I have always said that I would never give up being pro-life and standing up for babies in the womb.  Judy and I, and tens of millions of Catholics hold and live this belief.  But it is not just based on religious belief, it is based on science which shows us that life begins at conception.  Knowing this, I could never give up protecting the most vulnerable human beings in the world, simply to win an election."

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"My faith teaches, and the Democratic Party preaches, that we should serve everyone, especially the most vulnerable.  To stand in solidarity with the vulnerable is to become vulnerable.  But there is no higher calling for anyone."

Day said after Lipinski’s election that Democrats like herself might just stay home in the presidential election. While she maintains hope for state-level candidates opposing abortion, she warns that emboldened pro-life Democrats may send a national message by sitting out the 2020 presidential election.