Illinois primary contest tests Democrats' leftward shift on abortion amid 2020 attention

2020 Democrats back progressive challenger over incumbent Democrat.

When progressive activist Marie Newman fell just over 2,000 votes short of unseating one of the few remaining pro-life Democrats in Congress last year, she cemented Illinois’ 3rd Congressional District as the site of one of the starkest examples yet of the intra-party fight unfolding in the party over abortion.

Now, in the midst of a fierce presidential primary and a national fight over abortion rights, a potential rematch next year between Newman and longtime Congressman Dan Lipinski is already attracting early attention from a number of 2020 candidates. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who both endorsed Newman in 2018, are backing her again this cycle, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also threw his support behind her last month.

"@Marie4Congress will protect a woman’s right to choose and equality for all Americans. That’s Marie Newman. Let’s get her elected," Inslee wrote in a tweet announcing his endorsement.

"Illinoisans deserve leaders who will truly fight for all of them, including women seeking reproductive healthcare," Gillibrand wrote in an April tweet with an accompanying video that showed her alongside Newman.

The increased attention on the race also comes after a week that saw former Vice President Joe Biden’s support, then denouncement of, a controversial anti-abortion law drew rebukes from close to a dozen of his Democratic rivals, demonstrating the same split Newman is hoping to use to unseat Lipinski, who has represented the solidly Democratic district that includes parts of inner-city Chicago since 2005.

"It concerns me," Lipinski told ABC News in an interview this week of Biden’s reversal. "It puts the party in a worse position in terms of taking on Donald Trump in 2020."

He continued to stand by his stance on abortion, arguing for Democrats to widen their appeal to voters, instead of isolating more moderate voices.

A Quinnipiac poll from May found that 60% of voters said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, with 28% saying abortion should be legal in all cases, matching the highest level of support since the question was first asked in 2004.

A Lipinski has represented the southwest portion of Chicago and its surrounding suburbs in Congress for the last 35 years. The younger Lipinski arrived in Congress following his father's decision to drop out of the 2004 Democratic primary for the seat, but before the general election, and the Democratic Party tapped him to fill the empty slot.

Lipinski also said the attention from Democratic presidential candidates does not concern him.

"I don't think endorsements really mean anything. For the working class, middle-class people concerned about jobs and trade, who were [Bernie] Sanders voters, those are the voters who are most strongly with me," he argued.

Sanders won the district in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary by nine points over the party’s eventual nominee, Hillary Clinton.

Newman argues that the shifting dynamics in the party and the initial support from 2020 candidates puts her in a better position to achieve what she could not in 2018, and deny Lipinski an eighth term in office.

"I’m thrilled and incredibly grateful for the support," Newman told ABC News in an interview last week, also arguing that the recent election of progressive Lori Lightfoot as Chicago’s first African-American and first openly gay mayor is further evidence of the area’s changing politics.

"I got within 2% of beating the largest machine politician in the state of Illinois. And then our friends – Lori Lightfoot and several alderpeople in the city -- were able to beat the machine. So now everybody knows that the machine is beatable," Newman said.

While the 2018 primary results proved that the district remains almost evenly split, a Newman victory in 2020 would be an indicator that the room for moderate and pro-life Democrats within the party is continuing to shrink, a phenomenon playing out in a similar fashion across the aisle in the GOP.

"At the end of the day, whatever happens, will be a bellwether for whether the Democratic Party is going to be making similar shifts that we saw within the Republican Party," Ruth Bloch Rubin, a political science professor at the University of Chicago, told ABC News.

"I think one of the interesting things is that for a while now, Democratic moderates have still had a place within the Democratic Party, and there's been a lot less room for them within the Republican conference," Rubin said. "I think an open question for political scientists and for political observers more generally is whether the Democratic Party is going to polarize in the way that the Republican Party has. Whether that's a good thing or a bad thing I think depends on whether you look at the Republican Conference in Congress and say that looks like a well-oiled machine or whether you say they have many or more problems than the Democrats do."

For the 2020 candidates who have endorsed Newman, the recent anti-abortion laws passed in the red states of Alabama, Georgia and Missouri were a catalyst to wade into a primary that is still over 10 months away.

"Expanding access to women’s reproductive care is something Governor Inslee has focused on a lot," Inslee campaign spokesman Jared Leopold told ABC News. "The endorsement was in part a reaction to some of the attacks on women’s reproductive rights we’ve seen recently."

Can Democrats who oppose abortion survive in the party?

After the 2018 midterms elections saw the rise of incumbent challengers including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, who knocked down longtime Democratic lawmakers and clinched their seats in Congress, in 2020, Newman is poised to become another progressive darling by taking down a long-time Illinois political fixture.

"It's interesting that the top issues of the nation are not very different from the top issues in my district," Newman, who is an ardent supporter of reproductive rights, said. "I am in alignment with my district 100% ... Dan is dramatically out of alignment with his district and has been for quite some time."

"If you are out of alignment, your district is a huge problem, and you should be primaried," she added.

But Lipinski – who in 2018 got a boost from the Susan B. Anthony List, an anti-abortion organization that deployed canvassers to the district to campaign on his behalf -- argues that it is Newman who is out of step with voters, while he said he is focused on bringing investments from Washington to the district.

"I've been involved in just recently doing more to help with getting commuter rail service as an amendment in appropriations bills," he said. "Those are things that people care the most about."

Newman’s progressive bonafides make her a formidable rival to Lipinski, as she returns to the political ring, no longer a newcomer to campaigning or the district, and more aware of where she fell short in 2018.

"We were not in every single place every day," she said. "What we've done over the last 13, 14 months, is make sure that we have a strong, robust infrastructure everywhere, in every part of the district."

With the fight over abortion rights defining the battle lines in this race, the primary contest is gaining national attention and driving a wedge between the 2020 presidential candidates and the party’s establishment, namely the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

Despite chairwoman Cheri Bustos canceling an appearance at a fundraiser for Lipinski in Chicago, the DCCC remains behind Lipinski.

"While Congressman Lipinski and I do not agree on women's reproductive health care, this does not change how I will work as DCCC chair to protect our big tent Democratic caucus," she said in a statement announcing her decision to cancel.

The DCCC is instituting a new push this cycle that aims to protects incumbents in their caucus, but that effort also stifles primary challengers.

But the spate of presidential contenders, one of whom could potentially be the next leader of the Democratic Party, continues to throw their support behind Newman, sparked by a renewed urgency to safeguard Roe v. Wade in this ongoing pitched battle.

The race – a flashpoint for the party – is showcasing some of the most fundamental ideological differences on what is becoming a litmus test for 2020 Democrats up and down the ballot.

"Dan Lipinski is taking away women's rights at every turn, he has not only anti-choice, he is anti-birth control," Newman said. "He will go as far to say that he supports health care for all when he voted against Obamacare."

She continued: "You can't have it both ways, Dan. You're either for the ACA, or you're against it. You're either for health care for all or not … He even he makes fun of Medicare-for-all and he dismisses the Green New Deal. And the reality is, the district wants both of those things. This is not a like a nuanced case. It's a very clear case."

"Marie Newman is only focused on abortion," Lipinksi said of his opponent. "This is a district that I won, beat Marie Newman last election ... it's still district that really is concerned about day to day issues, pocketbook issues."

Meanwhile, national Democrats are grappling with how to move forward on the question at the crux of the national conversation: is there room for anti-abortion members in the party.

That question will see its first test in one of the three gubernatorial elections in 2019, where Louisiana’s Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards is running for re-election amid a contentious political battle over abortion rights.

Edwards recently signed a "heartbeat" bill into law -- a move seen as a major break from his own party after a slew of protests, led by abortion rights advocates, were triggered by GOP-led efforts to pass restrictive anti-abortion measures aimed at fomenting a larger battle over Roe v. Wade in the nation's highest court.

But the former minority leader of the Louisiana House of Representatives is staking out a long-held, yet divisive, position for Democrats, as he seeks a second term in the conservative state.

"I am pro-life," Edwards said on a local radio show in October 2018. "There are a whole range of issues, and rarely do two people, regardless of party, agree on every single issue. And so it’s just not difficult for me at all."

"This is not an easy issue to pigeon hole people, especially me on at least, because I don’t think the labels really work," he added.

Lipinski also remains adamant about his position, asserting that the more moderate voters, who do not fall into the pro-choice category, are crucial for Democratic efforts to reclaim the White House in 2020.

"Is the Democratic party going to continue pushing people out when we allowed Donald Trump to get elected president in 2016," Lipinski asked rhetorically about the debate. "We need to be expanding our voter base in order to gain control of the White House and the Senate, and I think it's a problem for the party to push out pro-life voters … And if they're not welcome in the party, that's going to be a disaster for the party."

For her part, Newman is distancing herself from intraparty clashes, asserting, "The squabbles at the DCCC-level or the DNC-level or wherever, is honestly, that's not important to me right now."

She also recognized the challenges for national Democrats as they walk a tightrope on abortion, saying, "I don't envy the presidential candidates right now."

For the 2020 Democrats, who will have to both lead on and answer for the party’s direction, the utmost priority appears to be striking a balance between supporting reproductive rights without alienating independents and moderates who are needed to win back the presidency.

"Where I come from, there are a lot of Democrats who don't agree with me on the issue of choice, and they have contributed to the party and again, many people, even who have regarded themselves as reasonable – reasonable – pro-life voters are still pretty shocked by the kinds of things happening in a place like Alabama," Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, told ABC News last month.

"Of course there are pro-life Democrats, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said in an interview with ABC News. "I think one of the things I've seen in my state is that there are people that hold their own individual beliefs, but they don't believe that that means you put those beliefs on other people."

Turning the focus on the eventual general election rival for the Democratic nominee, she added, "That is exactly what this president is done."

ABC News' Molly Nagle contributed to this report.