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Chicago Primary Shows Democratic Divisions


I think it's safe to say both political parties are trying to find the right balance right now between appealing to their grassroots supporters and building a big tent coalition. That very drama is playing out right now in Chicago. Voters go to the polls on Tuesday in a congressional primary that's pitting a centrist Democrat against a progressive political newcomer. NPR's Kelsey Snell traveled to Chicago and sent this report.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Metro commuters, your attention, please.

DAN LIPINSKI: Good morning. I'm Dan Lipinski. Appreciate your vote in the Democratic primary.

KELSEY SNELL, BYLINE: Early March isn't exactly the time that most people want to stop and talk politics on an outdoor train platform in Chicago. But that isn't stopping Congressman Dan Lipinski from trying.


LIPINSKI: Good morning.

SNELL: Lipinski isn't used to tough elections. He's represented the southwest side of Chicago and its southwest suburbs since 2005. When he was elected to fill the seat his father held for a dozen years before that.

LIPINSKI: When it really comes down to it, people vote for who they trust.

SNELL: But that may change this year. A progressive from the suburbs named Marie Newman launched a grassroots-style campaign to unseat him. Her pitch is simple. Dan Lipinski just isn't the kind of Democrat that can survive in the party anymore. Lipinski is anti-abortion rights. He voted against the Affordable Care Act and he's voted with President Trump on some immigration bills. He is one of the last centrist Democrats in Congress. Democratic Party leaders say there is no litmus test for abortion or otherwise. But Lipinski is out on train platforms like this fighting to survive.

LIPINSKI: I'm still a guy fighting for the little guy and gal in taking care of things in the communities. And I think that's what people still care about.

SNELL: Marie Newman and her supporters say the party evolved, and voters want an activist. And that's part of why Newman won the support of two Illinois Democrats who serve in Congress with Lipinski. That includes retiring Congressman Luis Gutierrez.

LUIS GUTIERREZ: He's just a dinosaur, shouldn't be there, should be a relic in some museum. This was the Democratic Party, you know, 1980.

SNELL: But Democrats say they want a big tent party. And this district spans an eclectic stretch of economic and ethnic backgrounds across a swath of the city and out to the far reaching suburbs.


SNELL: Last weekend Newman and Lipinski were just a few blocks apart at the South Side Irish Parade. It's an annual tradition where union floats nearly outnumber the marching bands, bagpipers and politicians that lined the route. Before the parade, Newman ducked inside a 1960s drive-in to grab a cup of coffee.

MARIE NEWMAN: I've been in every community at least seven times. I mean, this is a very strategic approach, but it is also a very human approach.

SNELL: Over the past few months, she's gone from struggling for name recognition, to pulling almost even with Lipinski. That quick rise has also invited some unwanted pressure from the establishment of her own party.

NEWMAN: Early on in the race, an elected official came to bully me and intimidate me out of the race.

SNELL: She said he suggested running for school board or something else. And there was more.

NEWMAN: They've stolen 400 signs. So I'm sending an invoice to Mr. Lipinski this week telling him that he owes me 400 signs. It's expensive. They're three bucks a sign.

SNELL: Newman is spoiling for the fight, an attitude that has won her the support of Senator Bernie Sanders and national progressive groups like Human Rights Campaign and NARAL Pro-Choice. Emily Cain is executive director of EMILY's List, a national group devoted to electing pro-choice women candidates that's also backing Newman. And she says it isn't just about abortion.

EMILY CAIN: But it's really about how you value women and their ability to make their own decisions and to really be a part of our economy.

SNELL: Lipinski supporters like Jeff Mack say they'd rather be talking about issues like climate change. But voters are asking about abortion.

JEFF MACK: Predominantly the Democratic Party is full of pro-choice candidates, so it does make Congressman Lipinski unique in that sense. I guess we'll find out how how the 3rd District feels about that.

SNELL: Contests over the rest of the year will test how far to the left the Democratic Party has moved and whether it is as Republicans argue too far to win control of the House. Kelsey Snell, NPR News, Chicago. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kelsey Snell is a Congressional correspondent for NPR. She has covered Congress since 2010 for outlets including The Washington Post, Politico and National Journal. She has covered elections and Congress with a reporting specialty in budget, tax and economic policy. She has a graduate degree in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill. and an undergraduate degree in political science from DePaul University in Chicago.