Did an Open Primary Contribute to the Loss of a Progressive Candidate?

Following a tough primary race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the conflict between their supporters narrowed to the race for DNC chair between Keith Ellison and Tom Perez. Once that concluded, it narrowed once again to a discussion about things like the structure of primaries and/or caucuses.

One of the issues highlighted by Sanders and his supporters was the problem with closed primaries, particularly in states like New York where voters have to register as Democrats months before ballots are cast. While it is state legislatures that govern the rules for these contests, Sanders advocated for open primaries. In the end, the party endorsed same-day registration and re-registration opportunities so that indies can become instant Democrats.

The primary race in the Third District of Illinois this week might prove to be a cautionary tale for those advocating for open primaries. On the Republican side, the only candidate was Holocaust denier and neo-Nazi Arthur Jones. For Democrats, the incumbent Dan Lipinski faced off against challenger Marie Newman.

Lipinski is one of the few conservative Democrats remaining in the House. He has taken positions against reproductive choice, Obamacare and the Dream Act. Newman ran on more traditionally liberal policies and won the endorsement of NARAL, moveon.org, Democracy for America, Progressive Change Campaign Committee, Human Rights Campaign, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders.

The race was extremely close with Lipinski pulling out a narrow win with a couple thousand votes more than Newman. Given that it was an open primary with no race on the Republican side, there has been a lot of speculation about crossovers voting for Lipinski, especially given things like this:

Lipinski’s campaign was slow to respond to the assault waged by Newman, an abortion rights supporter who had the backing of a number of powerful progressive groups, including EMILY’S List and Planned Parenthood. Enter Susan B. Anthony List — a group that backs candidates who oppose abortion rights. For the first time in a decade, SBA List got involved on behalf of a congressional Democrat — and it went all in for Lipinski. The group deployed 70 volunteers in the district for four days, targeting 17,000 voters who oppose abortion rights, including knocking on more than 26,000 doors. And SBA List bundled money for Lipinski, sent two pieces of voter contact mail and produced digital ads on his behalf.

It is impossible to know whether Republicans and/or moderate independents gave Lipinski his razor-thin margin of victory. But this is a cautionary tale demonstrating that primaries can involve complex sets of factors that don’t always lean in favor of progressive candidates.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .