Beating an entrenched incumbent is one of the most difficult things to do in politics. That’s one reason Marie Newman’s upset in IL-03 this week is so noteworthy.
This race put to the test how power is built in the Democratic Party—and provided a roadmap for how modern grassroots campaigns are won.
The background is important. The district is reliably blue, on the Southwest side of Chicago; the Democratic nominee hasn’t won less than 65% of the vote in decades. And yet it was represented by Dan Lipinski. For those not familiar, let’s just say he doesn’t act like your typical Democrat—voting against the Affordable Care Act, opposing the DREAM Act, refusing to endorse President Obama for re-election in 2012. He’s vocally and proudly anti-choice, even joining Republican colleagues earlier this year to petition the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade. But he had the support of the powerful local machine—he’s held the seat since 2005 and his father held it for two decades before that.
Marie ran in 2018 as a progressive forward-thinker. She didn’t have the backing of a lot of the power brokers in Washington, but they didn’t go out of their way to block her efforts. She lost in the primary by just 2%.
There were a lot of reasons to hope that 2020 would be different. For one, Marie had built something strong—from the ground up—in a matter of months. And she never stopped organizing. When you combine that with the fact the presidential primary would bring out more Democrats, it helps offset the impact that any local political machine could have.
The organization responsible for electing Democrats to the House of Representatives rolled out a policy this election cycle that essentially said: If you work for progressive challengers to incumbent Democrats, we won’t work with you. The DCCC essentially was putting its thumb on the scale to help Lipinski hold on to his seat.
For a lot of dedicated political professionals, that was an open threat to their livelihoods. So, just as Marie was getting her 2020 campaign set up, the blacklist forced several members of her consulting team to leave.
As a relatively new startup, Do Big Things was lucky to be in the position to make a choice. We didn’t rely on being a “preferred vendor” with the power brokers in D.C., and we certainly didn’t get into this line of work to put our bottom line ahead of what we believe.
We’re here to do the work it takes to make the world (and our party) better and that means supporting underdogs in big, important fights. The deck is already stacked against anyone running against an incumbent. Even the best challengers need all the help they can get.
And for those of us who were there for that first 2018 heartbreaker, we really couldn’t imagine not being part of the rematch. We’re proud of the role we played, helping develop a thoughtful, aggressive digital fundraising strategy and rethink the traditional paid media playbook to reach voters online with digital-friendly content.
Marie Newman built a powerhouse campaign team. Her staff—especially Ben Hardin, Mary-Margaret Koch, Francisco Martinez, and Nick Uniejewski—ran an incredible race. (And we loved working with partners like Jennifer Burton at SWAY, Diane Feldman, and Donna Victoria, who are fantastic at what they do.)
The numbers speak for themselves. Despite being outspent by almost $1 million in 2018, Marie actually closed the fundraising gap entirely this time around—largely due to a growing network of small-dollar online donors. And that allowed her to invest in reaching voters where they are, outspending Dan Lipinski both on TV and online.
The rest is now history. Because she won, it’s a history that will get told.
There will be a lot more to say about how she defeated an eight-term incumbent. (I’m looking at you, Ryanne Brown.)
This outcome should be a turning point for underdog campaigns. When you can’t rely on traditional power brokers, throw out the old-school playbook and build a winning coalition creatively by reaching people where they are.
And it should be a turning point for the minds at the party committees whose job it is to win elections. The DCCC should re-examine its blacklist policy, which serves only to drive a wedge between the people trying to do good in Washington and the people trying to good outside of Washington. The grassroots aren’t the enemy. They’re our power source.
Marie Newman is going to Washington because she embraced that in every aspect of her campaign—especially online. Now let’s see how Washington responds.