CHICAGO — Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) is facing the most daunting primary challenge of his nearly 14-year career — but you wouldn't know it from his campaign spending.
While the conservative Democrat is under assault from the left with the best-organized and best-funded opponent he’s faced, Lipinski (D-Ill.) sat nearly dormant on the airwaves for three weeks as newcomer Marie Newman leveled attacks.
Newman began 2018 with less than $237,000 in her campaign account to mount a primary challenge, while Lipinski had six times that at $1.7 million.
Yet it was Newman who was first in the race to air TV ads during a critical period in the primary, the same period when polls showed the little-known candidate made huge gains in name ID.
It’s the latest illustration of Lipinski’s struggle to hang on to his seat as longtime Democratic incumbents across the country face challengers from the left energized by the national political climate and the 2016 insurgent candidacy of Bernie Sanders.
Newman and the super PAC supporting her, Citizens for a Better Illinois, pummeled Lipinski with ads linking him to President Donald Trump and criticizing his stance opposing abortion rights and his vote against the Dream Act to protect young undocumented immigrants, with barely an on-air response. In the time Newman and supporters spent nearly $300,000 in ads, Lipinski had responded with just $54,000 in cable buys over two weeks.
Lipinski launched his first sizable TV ad buy last week.
“He could have gone up early with ads and just inoculated against his record,” said Beniamino Capellupo, executive director of SEIU’s Illinois Council who is working with the super PAC. “Instead, we were able to define him.” Capellupo added: “I don’t think he took her seriously.”
He had every reason to take her seriously. In January, U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky and U.S. Rep. Luis Gutiérrez, both Illinois Democrats, took the unusual step of backing Newman over their longtime colleague, and that was after national left-leaning groups including the Human Rights Commission, NARAL and Move.org coalesced behind Newman. They complained Lipinski, part of the centrist Blue Dog Democrats, had broken too often from the Illinois caucus.
Newman is selling herself as the progressive change agent in a racially and ethnically diverse district that covers Chicago’s Southwest side and nearby suburbs.
A Public Policy Poll released earlier this week showed Lipinski still holding the lead with 43 percent and Newman at 41 percent, which is within the margin of error.
The most recent campaign spending reports show Lipinski may have close to a $1 million balance in his campaign account when the March 20 primary arrives.
Lipinski spokesman Matthew Mayer said the spending on TV will come in at around $700,000 from Lipinski’s campaign alone, which includes four weeks on cable and two weeks on broadcast TV.
The Super PAC supporting him, United for Progress, Inc. also has money behind cable TV ads.
Lipinski’s campaign filings show he didn’t poll until February. He invested heavily in mailers, signs and walk cards that he passed out in parades. He donated to local Catholic schools, showed up at 5K runs and community soccer games.
And around the time that Newman’s campaign was executing its digital strategy online, Lipinski spent $40,000 on Christmas cards.
Lipinski’s approach is a testament to his old-school style of politics, perfected by his father, the former U.S. Rep. William Lipinski, who spent decades at the power center of the district and the Illinois Democratic Party, cutting deals and collecting political favors. While the younger Lipinski has long enjoyed the loyal backing of powerful House speaker and party chairman Mike Madigan, he is less a backroom dealmaker than his father and more a policy wonk. “I’m a workhorse, I’m not a showboat,” Lipinski recently told POLITICO.
Some are betting that the workhorse aspect is what will put Lipinski over the top in the end.
“Ms. Newman is very vocal on her progressive stances on those issues, but when push comes to shove, my experience in the neighborhood here is you need to have someone who responds to voters’ needs and returns your phone calls,” said Thom Serafin a longtime Chicago political consultant. “You need someone to be helpful and work you through the process of government. He’s a local guy. He doesn’t have ambitions on the national stage.”
But Bridget Gainer, a Cook County commissioner who grew up in the 3rd District, said Newman’s campaign is a reflection of a community that’s already shown it’s moved to the left of Lipinski — and that those voters appreciate a new name and message. She pointed to 2016 Democratic presidential primary when Bernie Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in the district by 8 points.
“This isn’t the first time they’re going to vote outside the palm card,” Gainer said. “They already did it once.”