Chi-town Showdown

For two competing Democratic incumbents in Illinois, one dividing issue: Israel

A new congressional map pits Democratic Reps. Sean Casten and Marie Newman against each other in a district on Chicago’s Southwest Side

U.S. House of Representatives

Reps. Sean Casten (D-IL) and Marie Newman (D-IL)

How much weight does one congressional vote carry with constituents — especially when that vote marks a thick line in the sand between opposing factions within the Democratic Party?

That is a question Chicago-area Jewish activists are considering as the newly drawn 6th Congressional District pits two incumbents — Reps. Marie Newman, a leader in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and Sean Casten, a member of the more moderate New Democrats — against one another in the Democratic primary. Those activists, who are gearing up to play a large role in the race as fundraisers and potential influencers, despite the district’s small Jewish population, are centering their efforts on the September 2021 vote to authorize $1 billion in supplemental funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile-defense system.

The vote came several months after an intense round of fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and amid a war of words in Congress between a small group of critics of Israel’s actions and the vast majority of House members. Casten voted for the additional funding; Newman was one of only eight House Democrats to vote against it.

“In [her] last race, I thought Marie was an excellent candidate,” said Howard Suskin, a Jewish Democrat who practices law in Chicago and donated to Newman’s campaign in 2020, referring to her defeat of eight-term Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL). “But to me, the decisive factor and why I’m supporting Sean Casten is Congresswoman’s Newman’s vote on the Iron Dome, which to me was inexplicable.”

Newman was elected to Congress in 2020 after defeating Lipinski, an eight-term incumbent and a conservative Democrat whom Newman targeted for his opposition to abortion. Newman saw a grassroots groundswell of support touched off by endorsements from Emily’s List and other progressive women’s organizations. 

In November, Gov. J. B. Pritzker signed off on the new congressional map that would ultimately see Casten and Newman run in the same district. The new 6th District leans Democratic, but it is not a guaranteed victory for Democrats. A handful of Republican contenders have entered the race, though they have raised very little money and earned few significant endorsements. 

The new district includes more of Newman’s current constituents than Casten’s: 41% of its constituents are currently represented by Newman, while 23% are represented by Casten. But Newman will have a harder time distinguishing herself from Casten, who is also pro-choice, than she did from Lipinski.

“Running against Sean Casten, it’s completely different than when she ran against Dan Lipinski. She basically had very large national fundraising base of people who didn’t like the idea of a pro-life Democrat,” said Frank Calabrese, a Chicago political analyst. “She’s not going to tap into that liberal anger running against Sean Casten.”

Instead, voters are faced with two candidates who have near-identical voting records — except on Israel. 

The political action committee affiliated with J Street, the liberal pro-Israel organization, has endorsed both Casten and Newman in the past. J Street, which supported the $1 billion in Iron Dome supplemental aid, hosted a fundraiser for Newman a couple of weeks after the vote. A J Street spokesperson told JI at the time that the organization “is proud to endorse Rep. Newman, who throughout her time in Congress has been a vocal and principled advocate for diplomacy-first American leadership and Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

But sources close to the organization believe J Street PAC will sit out the primary, waiting until Democratic voters choose their nominee. A J Street spokesperson did not respond to multiple requests for comment from JI. 

Some of the pro-Israel activists who backed Lipinski in 2020 are skeptical of Casten’s positions on Israel, but view him as a better option than Newman.

“Sean Casten has always been willing and eager to meet to discuss issues relating to the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said David Rosenberg, president of CityPAC, a pro-Israel bipartisan political action committee. “Even if we do not see eye-to-eye on every issue, he has been pragmatic in his approach and has taken a much more favorable stance than Marie Newman on many critical issues and votes.”

Many pro-Israel Democrats in Chicago also sat out the 2020 primary between Newman and Lipinski. The advocacy group Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI) did not endorse either candidate, citing Lipinski’s anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ positions as out of touch with the Democratic Party. The group has not gotten involved in Casten’s past races, either. DMFI has not yet made an endorsement in the new 6th District, and a spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment from JI. 

One prominent group of local pro-Israel Democrats has enthusiastically endorsed Casten in the primary. 

“He’s great on all the issues we care about,” said Steve Sheffey, who writes a Chicago-focused Jewish political newsletter and, with fellow activist Dana Gordon, runs Politics with Steve and Dana, a group that hosts events for Jewish community members and Democratic candidates. “He’s one of the leaders on the environment. He’s 100% pro-choice. And Israel is great. So there’s really no issue.” 

Casten’s campaign website touts the endorsement from Sheffey and Gordon. 

One Jewish Democratic activist who is involved with pro-choice advocacy in Chicago told JI that some progressive Jews who strongly supported Newman in her battle against Lipinski are now supporting only Casten — including people who have never taken Israel into consideration before in Democratic politics.  

“There’s already a lot of donors who have given to both in the past who are just with him now,” said the activist. 

While Newman’s vote against Iron Dome funding may play an outsized role for some donors, voters in her district — which has one of the largest Palestinian-American populations in the counrty — may feel differently. Most of those constituents would remain in the new 6th District. 

The redrawn district “maintains what I would consider all of the Middle Eastern, Palestinian community,” Calabrese told JI in October. 

For some Jewish progressives, Newman’s vote on Iron Dome does not outweigh her image as an iconic figure in the abortion rights movement. 

“The reason why my heart and spirit are with Marie here is because her victory was really a movement. It had movement energy. So there was this grassroots, really broad coalition of all different organizations and groups and constituencies coming together to be like, Dan Lipinski is no longer acceptable,” said one Democratic political activist in Chicago who has been involved with several area congressional campaigns in the past but is not currently connected to either Newman or Casten. The activist, who is Jewish, is not considering the Iron Dome issue. 

“​​I was part of that movement. And it’s important to me — her victory was really important for those of us for whom choice is a top priority.”

Both members have begun racking up endorsements from local unions, activist groups and other members of Congress. 

Newman again earned the endorsement of Emily’s List, while Planned Parenthood Action Fund endorsed both Casten and Newman. On the congressional side, Newman’s supporters include progressive leaders Reps. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) and Andre Carson (D-IN); Casten’s congressional backers include local Reps. Brad Schneider (D-IL) and Bill Foster (D-IL), as well as national figures including Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA). 

In the final three months of 2021, Casten raised more than $700,000 — his highest-ever for the fourth quarter of a non-election year, a campaign spokesperson announced Monday. Newman’s campaign has not yet released recent fundraising totals, but several people active in Chicago politics told JI they expect Casten’s fourth-quarter haul to dwarf Newman’s.

A Newman campaign official told JI her campaign raised over $1 million in 2021. Casten raised that much by September, bringing his year-to-date total close to $2 million. 

With five months until the primary in June, the candidates have yet to release attack ads against each other. That could change as the race gets closer, particularly since Newman “has a major scandal hanging over her head,” said Dick Simpson, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois in Chicago and a former Chicago alderman. 

The House Committee on Ethics is expected to decide next week whether to begin a formal investigation into Newman, who has come under scrutiny for allegedly convincing a potential candidate not to run against her in 2020 by promising him a senior job in her office. 

“It means that when she begins the campaign, she will be continually answering press questions on, ‘Why did she do that? Was she guilty?’ Particularly if the House committee decides to open a formal investigation,” Simpson explained. “That means that will be dragging on exactly during the time of the Democratic primary here.”

Note: The writer’s father, Rep. Ted Deutch, chairs the House Committee on Ethics.