Republicans Delivered the Democratic Primary Election to Dan Lipinski

By Colin McAuliffe (@ColinJMcAuliffe), Ryan O’Donnell (@RyanODonnellPA), and Sean McElwee (@SeanMcElwee)

Illinois 3rd is solid blue district; there is virtually no chance of a Republican winning a general election there. However, Democratic incumbent Dan Lipinksi is probably the last person one would expect to represent a district that Hillary Clinton won by over 15 points. Lipinski has been in Congress since 2005, where he has a record as an anti-choice homophobe who fought and voted against the Affordable Care Act. Lipinksi was gifted the seat by his party boss father and since has largely flown under the radar, occasionally drawing primary challenges during his career. In 2018 however, he faced a strong primary challenger in Marie Newman. Lipinksi won his election by a razor-thin margin, just 2,200 votes. Our analysis shows that Lipinksi owes his victory to Republicans who were using the Illinois open primary system to vote strategically.

There's no party registration in Illinois, meaning that primaries are open to any registered voter. This often leads to strategic voting, where Republican partisans vote in Democratic primaries and vice versa. Despite having no party registration, we can still get a good sense of whether someone is a Republican based on their primary voting history.

We consider two different definitions for considering someone a Republican. The first definition is people who voted in the 2016 Republican primary. There were about 10,000 2016 Republican primary voters turned out in the 2018 Democratic primary, more than 10 percent of the electorate.

We also use a second definition that is much more strict and reflects frequent Republican primary voters. We define frequent Republican primary voters as those who have voted in at least two out of the last 3 Republican primaries, and who did not vote in the 2016 Democratic primary. We automatically exclude 2016 Democratic primary voters from this definition because don’t want to get former Republicans or anyone who frequently jumps back and forth between party primaries each year depending on which one they think is more important. By this definition, there were about 5,000 frequent Republican primary voters in the 2018 Democratic primary, about 5 percent of the electorate.

Winning 62 percent of 2016 Republican primary voters or 73 percent of frequent Republican primary voters would entirely account for Lipinski’s narrow win margin. These are low bars to clear. Republicans who vote in primaries are stronger partisans than Republicans who don’t. These voters are also very likely to be highly informed and to recognize that from a strategic point of view, their best chance of electing a Republican to Congress was by voting for Lipinski in the Democratic primary.

In all likelihood, Lipinksi easily got enough votes from Republicans to entirely account for his vote margin. Using precinct-level election returns in conjunction with a voter file (full methodological details can be found here), we estimate that Lipinksi’s won 74 percent of 2016 Republican primary voters and 83 percent of frequent Republican voters. The figure below shows our estimates of vote shares and net votes (Lipinski votes - Newman votes) for these two groups. The model uncertainty in our estimates of vote choice are reflected in the distributions of vote share and net votes. Uncertainty is high for reasons that we discuss in our methods post on this technique, but even so, our low-end estimates were still more than enough to deliver the election to Lipinksi. Our best estimate is that 2016 Republican primary voters netted Lipinksi more than double his actual margin.

These results are bolstered by the circumstances of the race: right-wing anti-choice groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars and canvassed tens of thousands of conservative voters on his behalf.


The DCCC, under the leadership of Cheri Bustos, has implemented a new blunt force policy to box out primary challengers. They’ve told every vendor who wants to work with them they if they’re involved in a primary challenge, they’ll get blacklisted by the DCCC and won’t be eligible for any contracts from the DCCC. In addition to the damage this may do to any primary challengers, it’s a threat that requires the DCCC to be less effective at the job they’re supposed to be doing if they ever want to act on it. If the DCCC opts to not use a vendor they otherwise would have used, they’re either paying their new vendor more or giving the contract to one they believe to be worse.

Our analysis of FEC records shows something disturbing: it appears the blacklist is designed specifically to protect Dan Lipinski.

2020 may seem like an odd time to roll out this tactic. In 2018, only two primary challengers beat an incumbent Democrat in Congress, which is a pretty normal level. In 2016 it was 3, in 2014 it was 1, and in 2012 it was 2. The answer may lie in not in either challenger who succeeded, but one who didn’t: Marie Newman. Newman’s race was the marquee incumbent challenge in early 2018 before Lipinski’s Republican-aided win.

In 2018, there were a handful of primary candidates. We’ve searched through their financial records, and we it’s clear that if this ban had been in place in 2018, it would have affected Newman the most. Outside of IL-03, the blacklist would have affected three polls and a couple thousand in travel arrangements. Newman, however, would have seen roughly $132,000 in campaign investments become endangered. She employed 270 Strategies, a digital media shop, The Sexton Group, a consulting firm, and Normington, Petts & Associates, her pollster. All three also worked for the DCCC, who obviously stands as a larger client with more work to send their way.

Marie Newman is running against Dan Lipinski again this cycle. Cheri Bustos, who made the decision, is one of only two Democrats to donate to Lipinski in 2018 (in 2018, the DCCC chose not to endorse Lipinski and several Democrats outright endorsed against him). The other Democrat to donate to her this year, Henry Cuellar, has been a vocal supporter of the policy. In the race for DCCC chair, Lipinski very actively backed Bustos as DCCC chair.

January and February of 2019 saw the entry of multiple incumbent challengers who could reasonably be using traditional vendors: Kai Kahele in HI-02, Rishi Kumar in CA-18, Cristina Duran in CO-01, and Mohammad Dar in MA-08. Marie Newman started taking steps towards running in March. Two weeks after she did, The DCCC Blacklist was announced. Since then, it’s been a serious body blow to Newman’s campaign. She’s already had four resignations out of fear of the DCCC, and more firms simply refuse to work with her.

Newman has refused to back down in the face of the policy. She’s gone to the press about her experiences as an enemy of the DCCC, and hasn’t let up on her criticisms of Lipinski’s ongoing anti-gay politics. Progressives have rallied behind her, donating. In the four days after she talked about how the blacklist had affected her campaign, she received $45 thousand in small dollar donations. The next week, a coalition of five pro-choice progressive groups endorsed her in unison: Planned Parenthood, NARAL, PCCC, EMILY’s List, and MoveOn.

A final note: one defense of the blacklist that keeps popping up is that it encourages members to pay their DCCC dues. Lipinski publicly refuses to pay dues.

The DCCC is blacklisting progressive vendors to protect an anti-choice, anti-LGBT, anti-ACA man who won re-election due to Republicans.

Colin McAuliffe (@ColinJMcAuliffe) is a co-founder of Data for Progress.

Ryan O’Donnell (@RyanODonnellPA) is a senior advisor for Data for Progress.

Sean McElwee (@SeanMcElwee) is a co-founder of Data for Progress.

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