Column: Lipinski as an independent? Time will tell how many voters buy what he’s selling.

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Former U.S. Rep. Dan Lipinski faces plenty of headwinds in his pledge to help build momentum for independent candidates who want to give voters an alternative to the binary choice between Democrats and Republicans.

Lipinski ended weeks of speculation Monday when he said he would stay on the sidelines instead of running as in independent in November for the 6th District seat in Congress. He thanked volunteers who gathered 5,400 signatures from registered voters for a possible candidacy.

“I am humbled by, and very thankful for, the tremendous support,” Lipinski wrote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed piece. “However, after careful consideration I have decided to forego a run this year.”

Twelve days earlier, in another Tribune op-ed, Lipinski sounded like sour grapes as he whined about how Rep. Marie Newman him and won the 2020 Democratic primary for the 3rd District seat that Lipinski held for 16 years.

“I lost that race because I dared to not always follow in lockstep with my party in an era in which extreme partisanship and polarization rule,” he wrote. “Both parties are failing our country and hurting the American people.”

You’ve got to hand it to Lipinski for crafting an image of himself as a solution to what ails American politics. But who wants to buy what he is selling? First, one should separate the general concept of independent candidates from Lipinski’s personal consideration of a November run for Congress as an independent.

The 6th District race pits incumbent Democrat Sean Casten of Downers Grove, who beat Newman in the June 28 primary, against Orland Park Mayor Keith Pekau, the Republican nominee.

Conventional wisdom held that a Lipinski run would help Pekau and hurt Casten, the Democrat, because Lipinski had a “D” after his name all those years he served in Congress. However, Lipinski recently told WLS-AM he could hurt Republicans more than Democrats. As one of only a few Democratic politicians to oppose abortion, he could siphon votes from Pekau.

Lipinski’s positions on numerous issues make him look a lot more like a Republican than a Democrat. In recent social media posts, Lipinski praised Supreme Court rulings on a football coach who prayed on the field and a Maine program affecting public funds for religious education, calling them victories for religious freedom.

Lipinski seems like he would be more comfortable wearing a Republican label, but he just can’t seem to shake the fact he owes his political career to the Democratic Party.

In 2004, Bill Lipinski, Dan’s father, held the 3rd District seat. The elder Lipinski won the Democratic primary, then announced he would not seek another term. This allowed the party to anoint a replacement who was all but assured victory in the general election. The party picked Dan. That gave him the advantages of incumbency over challengers.

It’s a little tough to swallow Lipinski’s essays on disservice to voters and failing political parties when he benefited from the Democratic Party’s machine for so many years. Here’s where the notion of independent candidates as alternatives to the two main parties crashes into reality and makes Lipinski’s path forward so difficult.

No one likes a turncoat, and the Democratic Party of Illinois is not going to give Lipinski one iota of support if he criticizes President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and others in his bid to sway Republican and independent voters.

Lipinski can expect Democratic Party brass to receive him about as warmly as they treated former Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Democratic vice presidential nominee in 2000 who later embraced independence. The party will treat Lipinski as a pariah.

My guess is most Democratic voters will feel the same way. They rejected Lipinski in 2020, why would they choose him in 2024 if he runs then? He may try to court moderate independent and GOP voters, but he would no doubt be outnumbered by supporters of a rabid extremist running to his right.

That’s reality. You don’t have to like it, and you can applaud Lipinski for trying to change it, but his chances for success are slim. The most successful independent presidential candidate was the late Ross Perot, who got 19% of the popular vote but no Electoral College votes in 1992.

More likely, independent and third-party candidates serve as spoilers that could tip the balance in close elections. In the 2016 presidential election, Libertarian Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein may have made the difference in Donald Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton.

When Kanye West ran as an independent for president in 2020, was he running on principles or trying to help Trump by shaving Democratic votes away from Biden? In a close contest, every vote matters.

Money fuels politics. Any movement to encourage independent candidates is going to need funding to compete with the resources poured into the two main parties. What prevents special interests from funneling dark money into efforts that could undermine opponents by propping up independent and third-party challengers?

It’s hard to take Lipinski seriously, since state law rendered him ineligible to run as an independent in November. As Capitol Fax reported Monday, Lipinski recently told Politico he pulled a Democratic ballot in the June primary. People who vote in Democratic primaries in Illinois cannot run as independents or candidates for another party in the next general election.

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Was Lipinski, a political-science professor, unfamiliar with state election law? He could have saved volunteers who collected more than 5,000 signatures on his behalf a lot of trouble.

Americans seem to like their binary choice when it comes to elections. Other nations have more diverse and nuanced political systems. Coalitions are formed to run government. Here, it’s difficult to imagine an alternative to the two-party system taking hold.

Lipinski is right that gerrymandering and special interests have made our politics more partisan and less representative. A majority of Americans may be unhappy with the country’s direction, but how many are clamoring for more independent candidates as a solution?

Other, more pressing concerns include an activist judiciary that has weakened the separation of church and state, a religious minority that has deprived women of health care choice, and a plot to violently overturn the results of a free and fair election.

But that is what makes America great. Someone like Lipinski is free to sell his ideas to the public. Time will tell how many are buying what he’s selling.

Ted Slowik is a columnist for the Daily Southtown.

tslowik@tribpub.com

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July 12, 2022 at 05:13PM

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