'No higher calling': Lipinski says he is proud of pro-life record

Congressman Dan Lipinski Public Domain CNA 2 1 Illinois Congressman Dan Lipinski.

Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-Ill.) conceded his primary race on Wednesday, saying that he stood by his pro-life principles even if they led to his defeat.  

“There was one issue that loomed especially large in this campaign, the fact that I am pro-life,” Lipinski, a Catholic eight-term member of the U.S. House of Representatives, told reporters on Wednesday as primary election results showed him more than 2,400 votes behind his challenger Marie Newman.

“Over the years I’ve watched many other politicians succumb to pressure and change their position on this issue,” he said, noting that his pro-life stance was based upon his Catholic faith and “on science, which shows us that life begins at conception.”

“I could never give up protecting the most vulnerable human beings in the world, simply to win an election,” Lipinski said.

“My faith teaches—and the Democratic Party preaches—that we should serve everyone, especially the most vulnerable,” he said.

“To stand in solidarity with the vulnerable is to become vulnerable. There is no higher calling for anyone. But politicians don’t like to be vulnerable.”

Lipinski, representing Illinois’ third congressional district on Chicago’s south side and suburbs, is recognized as the last reliably pro-life Democrat in the House.

In recent years, he joined Republicans in supporting a “pain-capable” 20-week abortion ban, a bill to mandate care for babies who survive botched abortions, and legislation to strip Planned Parenthood of federal funds.

His opponent, Marie Newman, was backed by national pro-abortion groups who targeted Lipinski’s pro-life record in ads during the primary.

“We ran a good campaign against tremendous headwinds,” Lipinski said on Wednesday, acknowledging his defeat and offering his congratulations to Newman. “As I said during the primary, I’ll support the winner of the primary,” he said.

For the second consecutive election cycles, Lipinski faced an onslaught of opposition from progressive and pro-abortion groups. 

Pro-abortion groups such as NARAL, Planned Parenthood, and EMILY’s List all joined a coalition that invested $1.4 million into the race, targeting him in digital, TV, and mail ads and highlighting his pro-life record.

Even two politically activist nuns from the Sisters of Mercy—Sisters JoAnn Persch and Pat Murphy—publicly endorsed Newman in a campaign video. The endorsement was “the most embarrassing, or shameful, moment” in the race, said Joshua Mercer, editor of CatholicVote.org’s “The Loop.”

Lipinski said on Wednesday that he “was pilloried in millions of dollars of TV ads and mailers” on the abortion issue. He had told CNA in January that he had not seen as much support from pro-life groups as he had hoped for.

The pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List told CNA on Thursday that they spent a total of $45,000 on the race, including a $5,000 direct contribution to the Lipinski campaign and independent expenditures for Lipinski and against Newman.

“The pro-life community doesn’t have as much money as the abortion lobby, for sure,” said Kirsten Day executive director of Democrats for Life in America. Ads from pro-abortion groups also targeted Lipinski for opposing health care, immigration, and the minimum wage, even where he had voted reliably Democrat on an issue. “There was no counter to that,” Day said.

Lipinski’s seat was a symbolical for the abortion industry, Mercer said, and groups like NARAL understood that.

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“It’s very few times when abortion legislation in the House would rise or fall on one vote. The abortion industry understood how frustrating it was to their cause to have someone who was a very reliable Democrat say ‘no, I’m pro-life,’” Mercer said.

“They saw him as undermining their cause, and they saw the value in spending millions of dollars to defeat him.”

Some progressive Democratic members of Congress, including freshman Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) and presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), officially endorsed Newman.

Rep. Cheri Bustos (D-Ill.), chairwoman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) made headlines in 2019 for backing out of a DCCC fundraiser to support Lipinski after she endured backlash from abortion supporters in the party. On Wednesday, she congratulated Newman on her victory and thanked Lipinski for his service.

Lipinski on Wednesday said that he “was shunned by many of my colleagues and other Democratic Party members and operators. I was shunned 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.

Democratic leadership in the House and senators from Illinois “did very little” to back the eight-term incumbent, even as other Democratic members were endorsing Newman, said Day.

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Lipinski voted often with his party, so “to receive this kind of treatment over his support for human life, it just is a bad direction for the party,” she said.

Some party leaders, such as House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), have said that there is still room in the party for pro-life Democrats like Lipinski. Endorsements of his colleagues in Congress, however, never materialized as they did for Newman.

“They want the votes of Catholic voters,” Mercer said of Democratic Party leaders. “They don’t want the voices.”

In the wake of Lipinski’s defeat, political commentators said that the Democratic Party’s abortion extremism will come back to haunt them in the general election. Presidential candidates have endorsed abortion-on-demand even until birth, and all the candidates support taxpayer-funded abortions.

Day said that pro-life Democrats need to turn their attention to the general election and the party’s platform, which will be adopted at the 2020 convention in Milwaukee later this summer.

The 2016 DNC platform called for taxpayer funding of abortions in the U.S. and overseas, a significant shift on the issue. Day said that the platform contributed to the party’s extremist shift in favor of abortion, including efforts to unseat Lipinski.

Based on her conversations with moderate Democratic, independent, and Republican voters in Lipinski’s district, Day said the party’s abortion “extremism” had already convinced some of them to stay home on Tuesday rather than vote in the party’s primary.

“If the Democratic Party thinks that they’re going to do well in November with [Joe] Biden, who has really apologized for opposing taxpayer funding of abortion—if they think they’re going to get these independents to cross over and vote for Biden, I think that they’re going to be surprised,” Day said.

Biden, she said, needs to make “concessions” on the issue and there must be “drastic change to the [party] platform.”

Political strategist Jacob Lupfer said the pro-life movement could have done far more to save Lipinski.

“It is strategically insane for the party to move in this extreme direction,” Lupfer said.

While Students for Life volunteers canvassed for Lipinski in the closing days of the race, he noted, “the institutional pro-life movement did not make significant investments in this race commensurate with its wealth and power. The big pro-choice groups did.”

Mercer, however, questioned the lack of support Lipinski received from the “Catholic Left,” some of whom support presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—who also endorsed Newman last year.

“It makes you wonder about what’s going on with the Catholic Left, that stuff like this happens,” Mercer said of pro-labor Lipinski’s defeat by the more liberal Newman who advocated for policies such as Medicare-for-All and the Green New Deal.

“These are two Democrats. It’s like, what kind of Democratic Party do you want? Do you want it to be a cheerleader for the abortion industry? Then that’s Marie Newman. Or do you want the Democratic Party to say ‘we can be pro-labor, pro-environment, and still be pro-life’? That’s Dan Lipinski,” Mercer said.

Pro-lifers also need to recruit candidates from a more demographically diverse field, Lupfer said, noting that "it doesn't look good for the movement when all the pro-life Democrats in Congress are moderate white men.”

The movement needs to be bipartisan to succeed on the national level, he said, and this means going on offense and running candidates in primaries in moderate and swing districts, targeting vulnerable incumbents.

Pro-lifers should “do what AOC did, but do it in reverse,” he said, referring to the unexpected success of young Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who ousted a Democratic incumbent in a 2018 primary.

“They need to go in and recruit black church leaders to run for Congress. Or go find Hispanic moms in state legislatures who are pro-life Democrats,” Lupfer said. “Go around the country and get 30 or 40 of these candidates and run them in Democratic congressional primaries against complacent, entrenched, or corrupt incumbents.”

Lipinski was one of the last remaining pro-life Democrats because he stood fast by his principles, Mercer said.

“It’s easy to get disappointed by politicians, and the enormous pressures that politicians face between voters and institutional party,” he said.

“Dan Lipinski was somebody who stood strong on the principle of defending the unborn, and was willing to pay whatever political price for it. And that’s a tremendous amount of courage.”