How will coronavirus impact a three-way Illinois congressional race?

Incumbent Democratic Rep. Dan Lipinski faces two progressive challengers in a solidly blue district

J. Scott Applewhite/AP Photo

Rep. Dan Lipinski, D-Ill., is met by reporters as he leaves the Democratic Caucus leadership elections at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2018.

A close Illinois primary race — marked by an unusual focus on policy towards Israel among Democrats and a Holocaust-denying Nazi on the Republican side — may end up being determined by something else altogether: a virus that has yet to be contained. 

The race for Illinois’s 3rd congressional district drew attention when Israel became a voting issue in a primary otherwise focused on health care, abortion rights and domestic social issues. Challengers to incumbent Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL) — including Marie Newman, who lost to Lipinski by a small margin in 2018, and Rush Darwish, who hopes to be the first Palestinian-American from Illinois in Congress — went after the eight-term congressman for his support of the Jewish state. 

However, the issues are being overshadowed by the growing threat of COVID-19. “The story that’s shaking up Illinois politics and U.S. politics is the coronavirus scare,” said Sean Tenner, a Chicago-based Democratic political consultant. “Nobody is quite sure how it will impact results on Election Day, but a few things are clear. Turnout is absolutely going to be lower than it would be if we were not in the middle of a pandemic.”

Tenner pointed out that it’s “no secret that Congressman Lipinski tends to do better with senior voters,” which could hurt his chances today. “Many senior voters are very concerned about the risk of exposure and there will be seniors who will not come out who certainly otherwise would vote for the congressman,” he said. 

On the flipside, he said, younger voters — who are more likely to vote for Lipinski’s challengers — tend to support Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and will likely be less enthusiastic to go to the polls now that the risk of catching the virus is coupled with the decline of the Vermont senator’s chances in the presidential race.

When Israelis voted for a third time earlier this month, special arrangements were made for those deemed at risk, with some workers donning full hazmat gear. No provisions on that scale appear to be in place for Tuesday’s primary in Illinois.

“We completely had to tear up the tried-and-true playbook of ‘get out the vote,’ and between Saturday and Sunday instead of knocking on 25,000 doors we made 100,000 phone calls,” Ben Hardin, a spokesman for Newman, told JI. He said it was a tough decision to make, but it was an important measure to protect voters and staff. 

Marie Newman

In an email to JI, Rush Darwish said that the campaign “changed dramatically in the last couple of days due to the spread of COVID-19.” He said “vote efforts have become primarily remote and we have had to cancel our election night party.” Team members now “only bump elbows instead of shaking hands,” he said.  

John Mark Hansen, a professor of political science at the University of Chicago, pointed out that early voting and absentee ballots have been available for a while, and those concerned by the virus could have utilized those options. He said while the pandemic may have some impact, the decisive factor likely comes from within the party itself, as it throws its support behind incumbents over challengers.

“The conditions are a little more difficult for [Newman] this time around, in part because the national party, the DCCC, has basically gone all-in for its incumbents and so they have kind of frozen her out,” Hansen said. “She still has plenty of support, particularly from abortion rights groups. But my instinct is that her best shot was in 2018, and she didn’t get it done then, and it will be harder this time around.”

Darwish’s candidacy also poses a challenge for Newman. “Given that she came so close last time around, I think Newman was the main alternative and it’s another negative for her having him in the race,” Hansen said. “[Darwish] is not taking votes away from Lipinski.”

The battle is shaping up as a traditional Democrat facing a challenge to the old guard from modern progressives. Newman and Darwish contend that Lipinski, who assumed office in 2005 after replacing his father, is out of touch with the district, citing his voting record that is often out of step with the mainstream Democrat party, including his opposition to abortion. 

Lipinski, who brands himself as “the commonsense Democrat,” dismisses the allegations, pointing to voting trends in the area. 

But the pandemic has hammered home in a very tangible way the main issue at the heart of the election here: healthcare.

Hardin, Newman’s spokesman, chastised Lipinski for his handling of the crisis. “It is reprehensible that two days ago, both Democrats and Republicans came together in the House to pass the coronavirus relief bill, and Dan Lipinski was here in the district at a campaign potluck dinner — and didn’t feel the need to go back to DC to work with his colleagues to provide a relief for families here,” Hardin said. 

He drew a stark contrast to how he said Newman would deal with the situation. “She is an advocate for a system of healthcare that will cover everybody, that will refocus the way that we approach healthcare to patient care and not to profits,” Hardin said. “That’s a pretty winning message, particularly now [when] people are worried about being able to afford, or have access to, a vaccine or even testing.”

Rush Darwish

Lipinski’s camp repeatedly denied requests for an interview. However, things seem to be looking up for him as the general election heats up.

“Events nationally over the past couple of weeks have shown that the Democratic Party is in no mood to take a gamble,” Hansen explained. ”Part of that is ‘let’s go with the tried-and-true Joe Biden’ and part of that is ‘we’re not going to be very finicky about what peoples’ positions are, were going to support incumbents so that we maintain control of the House and try to get a bunch of Senate candidates nominated who will be competitive.’” In the debate between “ideological purity and anticipated electability, electability is winning out in a big way right now,” Hansen added. 

Tenner pointed out that many of the issues people have been discussing ahead of the election — including “abortion and Israeli-Palestinian issues” — have been eclipsed by concerns over the coronavirus.

The winner of Tuesday’s Democratic primary is expected to win the general election in November in this deeply blue district. In the past, the make-up of the district has left it largely ignored by the Republican Party.

It’s these mechanics that enabled Arthur Jones, a Holocaust denier and former leader of the American Nazi movement, to run unopposed as the Republican candidate in 2018 and win some 56,000 votes. Many of those votes, analysts say, came from Republicans who voted for the party’s nominee automatically without knowledge of Jones’ beliefs. 

Republicans were embarrassed by Jones’ 2018 primary victory and vowed to prevent it happening again. This year Mike Fricilone, the Republican minority leader of the Will County Board, is running against Jones, and has been endorsed by the party’s leadership. “The Republican Party has taken quite an active stand against [Jones], sending out advertisements making sure that people know that he is a Nazi,” Tenner said. “There is a sensible candidate running for the nomination now.”

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