In a move that's sure to infuriate progressives, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi endorsed Rep. Dan Lipinski, a conservative Democrat who opposes abortion rights, LGBT rights, and Obamacare, in his reelection bid in Illinois. Lipinski is in a tight race with Marie Newman, a nonprofit executive who's received the backing of powerful progressive groups, to represent Illinois' 3rd congressional district.
"Yes," Pelosi said on Friday when asked if she supported Lipinski's reelection campaign, according to Washington Examiner reporter Al Weaver. "I do."
To be sure, plenty of lawmakers buck the party line every now and again without losing the support of party leadership. What's striking in this case, though, is the sheer extent of Lipinski's opposition to central components of the Democratic Party's platform. In addition to voting against the Affordable Care Act — arguably Democrats' most important legislative achievement of the last two decades — the Illinois congressman also opposes legal abortion, the DREAM Act, stem cell research, and same-sex marriage.
Pelosi's support for Lipinski is even more puzzling given that, as a member of the House Democratic caucus, he's consistently voted against Pelosi's own reelection bids to serve as Democratic leader. Although he supported her 2009 election as Speaker of the House, he voted against her in 2011, 2013, 2015 and 2017.
Pelosi's decision to support an anti-choice candidate, and the controversy that ensued, is a microcosm of a larger debate playing out in the Democratic Party. In short: Should Democratic candidates who oppose reproductive rights still receive the backing of the party's elders, fundraising committees and rank-and-file? Or should support for abortion access be a litmus test for all prospective Democratic candidates?
This question came to a head in 2017 when Democrats nominated Heath Mello as their candidate in the Omaha, Nebraska mayoral race. When it was subsequently reported that Mello had previously taken some anti-choice positions, he was denounced by progressive groups, one of which — the Daily Kos, a highly influential website on the left — withdrew its endorsement of him. Mello went on to lose his race.
The minority leader made her own stance clear in 2017, when she said that "of course" Democrats should be allowed to stray from the party line on abortion rights. In follow-up comments to the Washington Post, Pelosi said that the Democratic Party "is not a rubber stamp party," and implied that the party's perceived rigidity on domestic social issues is part of why Donald Trump won the presidential election.
"That’s why Donald Trump is president of the United States — the evangelicals and the Catholics, anti-marriage equality, anti-choice. That’s how he got to be president,” Pelosi said. “Everything was trumped, literally and figuratively by that.”
But although she's one of the most powerful elected Democrats, Pelosi's position puts her at odds with some of her party's most powerful donors and lawmakers, to say nothing of the Democratic base itself. Planned Parenthood, EMILY's List and the Human Rights Campaign, for instance, have all bought ads denouncing Lipniski over his stance on abortion, according to Mother Jones. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a rising star in the party and possible 2020 presidential candidate, has endorsed Newman over Lipinski, and in a rare move, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee — the party's official fundraising wing for House Democrats — declined to endorse the incumbent Democrat.
"Illinois voters deserve a Democratic congressional delegation that is as unflinchingly committed to fighting for abortion rights and LGBT equality as they are to standing up to any other racial and economic injustice," Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive PAC Democracy for America, said in a statement. "Congressman Dan Lipinski's backward, right-wing ideology is profoundly out of step with a twenty-first century Democratic Party and we can't wait to see him replaced by Marie Newman in the U.S. House."
So, will Lipniski's apostasy on key progressive issues end his political career? The answer will be clear on March 20th, when Illinois' 3rd congressional district holds its primary.