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From Illinois to Pennsylvania: A Moderate Winning Streak

By / 3.26.2018

Is moderate Democrat turnout in recent special elections an indicator of what’s to come?

It was down to the wire, but Rep. Dan Lipinski’s victory over a left-wing challenger in Illinois’ primary election this week keeps alive a moderate Democrat winning streak. Lipinski, who represents Illinois’s 3rd Congressional District, narrowly edged out challenger Marie Newman by 2.4 percent of the vote. Newman enjoyed the backing of Washington pressure groups incensed by Lipinski’s deviations from progressive orthodoxy – he is personally opposed to abortion and voted against the Affordable Care Act. She also was endorsed by Sen. Bernie Sanders, who carried the district by 9 points against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic primary. Nonetheless, Democratic primary voters stuck with Lipinski.

Coming on the heels of wins by Conor Lamb and Doug Jones in a district and a state that Donald Trump won handily in 2016, Lipinski’s success completes a moderate Democratic trifecta. In Pennsylvania’s 18th District, which Mitt Romney won by 17 points and Trump by 20 points, Lamb had to attract Republican-leaning voters to win. While toeing the party line on health care, entitlement reform and unions, the ex-Marine also took independent stands on guns, immigration and abortion issues and expressed his willingness to work across party lines in Congress. That combination proved attractive to moderate and swing voters who put him over the top. Also impressive was Doug Jones’ U.S. Senate victory in deep-crimson Alabama. Exit polls from the special election to fill Jeff Sessions’ (R) vacant senatorial seat showed that Jones won moderate voters by a stunning 47 points. Of course, Jones had the good fortune to run against accused pedophile Roy Moore, but his tempered positions on gun rights and abortion helped him become the first Democrat elected to the Senate from Alabama since 1992.

The lesson from these elections, of course, isn’t that moderate Democrats always do better than liberals. The main takeaway is that the party’s candidates must be well-matched, politically and culturally, to the districts and states they seek to represent.

Being a good candidate isn’t simply a matter of checking ideological boxes or filling out interest group questionnaires. There can be no “one-size-fits” all electoral strategy for winning in every region of a country as big and diverse as ours. In Illinois, Newman charged that Lipinski is not a “true Democrat” because of his views on abortion and same-sex marriage. Democratic primary voters thought otherwise. And that should give pause to the progressive purity police.