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End the Democratic Incumbent-Protection Machine

Progressives won a big victory in Illinois’ third congressional district primary on Tuesday when incumbent Dan Lipinski, one of the most conservative Democratic members of the House, lost to his challenger, Marie Newman. 

Newman, a small business owner and non-profit leader, challenged Lipinski before in 2018 and narrowly lost by 2,124 votes

Over eight terms in the House, Lipinski has generally avoided serious primary challengers, despite his opposition to the Affordable Care Act, birth control, universal child care, and President Obama’s deferred action program for Dreamers, called DACA.

Undoubtedly, being in Congress for more than a decade has shielded Lipinski from viable primary challenges, but at a time when progressives are demanding greater representation and influence within the party, there’s no reason he should represent a district Hillary Clinton won by 15 points in 2016.

Fortunately for Lipinski, his status as an incumbent guaranteed him support from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), an official party organization that helps Democrats get elected to the House of Representatives. 

Unlike groups such as Emily’s List and the League of Conservation Voters, the DCCC doesn’t make decisions about whom to support using values-based criteria. Instead, Lipinski got official party backing because the DCCC insists on protecting incumbent Democrats from primary challenges, with no exceptions. 

The DCCC should end this practice because it shields incumbents in safe districts from real accountability, allowing them to prioritize special interests above the needs of their constituents. 

The DCCC incumbent-protection policy is not new. It used to be an unwritten rule that protected incumbents from primary challengers so their time could be better spent fundraising to fight Republicans. But after insurgent candidates like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ayana Pressley defeated incumbents in safe districts in 2018, the DCCC codified the rule, announcing it would blacklist campaign consultants who work for candidates challenging Democratic incumbents. 

To be fair, this rule does have some value. It prevents Democrats, like the 40 who flipped Republican House districts in the midterms, from having to dilute their time, energy, and resources and instead focus solely on defeating Republicans in the general election. However, it has precisely the opposite effect when conservative Democrats like Lipinski occupy safe seats in Congress, and use them to actively advance Trump’s agenda while being shielded from primary challengers who would be objectively better at representing their districts. 

Two weeks ago, on Super Tuesday, this policy worked the way it was supposed to in Texas’s 28th congressional district. Democratic incumbent Henry Cuellar defeated his progressive challenger, Jessica Cisneros, an immigration and human rights lawyer. Cuellar, who’s also in his eighth term, was so favored by conservatives that the Koch Brothers stepped in to support his candidacy. This had no impact on the DCCC or Nancy Pelosi’s decision to support Cuellar, helping him get elected to a ninth term in a district Hillary Clinton won by 20 points

Ending this policy may seem insignificant given Democrats’ 35 person majority in the House, but preparing for the future is the entire point. At some point Democrats’ majority will shrink, making every remaining vote more important. Democrats never need members from very blue districts voting with Republicans, but particularly when their majorities are smaller, or when they’re in the minority and trying to be a unified opposition party. 

The DCCC incumbent policy also creates problems that are distinct from where incumbents fall on the ideological spectrum. Regardless of their ideological stances, politicians who are shielded from competition have little incentive to prioritize the needs of their constituents or even do their jobs. Swing district members, by contrast, are under constant scrutiny, and thus feel pressure to perform at a high level. 

Instead of blindly protecting incumbents, the DCCC should endorse candidates based not on incumbency status, but on a set of criteria devised to best serve particular districts and the party as a whole. 

That criteria should include the competitiveness of Republican challengers, and the Democratic candidates’ ability to address the needs of constituents, turn out new voters, and advance key party priorities.

By relying on this set of criteria Democrats can create accountability for party freeloaders who rest on their laurels, and abolish the current approach, which seeks to neutralize systems of accountability. It would also ensure that closeted Republicans are held accountable for advancing an agenda that undermines the work of their colleagues. A new endorsement process would strengthen the party by prioritizing candidates who can actually excite and grow the base, turning out voters who will vote for other Democrats on the ballot every two years.  

At first glance, this endorsement criteria may appear burdensome for more moderate Democrats, but it would actually strengthen the DCCC’s case for supporting them. Although the term “electability” is often bandied about to discriminate against women and people of color, when measured accurately it is an important consideration that should account for ideology and incumbency. But those things are less important in solidly blue districts, where we should be able to rely on Democrats to do what’s in the best interest of the larger party. 

There are a lot of lessons we could take from Tuesday’s election results, but one of the biggest is that the DCCC has enabled conservatives to occupy positions of power in our party just because they promise to identify as Democrats. This is not enough. 

It’s time to raise the bar and stop protecting incumbents for the sake of protecting incumbents. If they are not in government service to help their constituents or the party, they should be left to fend for themselves, not be rewarded for it.