Democratic political rookies Sean Casten and Lauren Underwood may beat their opponents, GOP Reps. Peter Roskam and Randy Hultgren on Tuesday, but only if that blue wave, spawned by President Donald Trump’s election and sustained by his scorched rhetoric, materializes in the Chicago suburbs.
Roskam first won the 6th Congressional District in 2006; voters in the 14th district sent Hultgren to Congress in 2010. The districts take in west and northwest suburban and exurban turf, from city-like blocks to bucolic rural pockets.
If Underwood is elected, she will be the first woman and first African American to represent the 14th, the majority-white district where she grew up.
The elections in the 6th and 14th are “both up in the air,” McHenry County Board Chairman Jack Franks, a Democrat, said in an interview in Woodstock. McHenry includes parts of both districts.
“They can go either way,” he added. “But that’s an extraordinary statement. I personally think that both Sean and Lauren will win. And to say that sitting in McHenry County on the Woodstock Square 10 days before an election — I never thought I’d be in that position to ever say that in McHenry County because it’s been so overwhelmingly Republican for so long.”
Bob Grogan is the DuPage County Auditor and chairman of the Downers Grove Township Republican Organization. In the 6th, “it seems like it’s fairly even. I like our chances. I think we’re in a good spot,” he said in an interview in organization’s storefront headquarters.
As for the Trump factor, Grogan said: “He helped coagulate people who are not on my side of the aisle. He gave them a rallying cry.”
The Cook Political Report ranks the 6th as leaning Democratic, and the 14th as a tossup.
In the last quarter, Underwood and Casten out-raised their rivals, quite an accomplishment given that entrenched incumbents usually significantly outpace first-time candidates.
That’s only part of the money story.
Democratic and GOP outside groups have poured millions of dollars into these districts. Democrats need to flip 23 GOP seats to win the House. These two districts are top prospects.
In the past week, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg became a player in both contests.
His Independence USA PAC spent $692,840 for media time to boost Underwood.
The Independence spot is generic, so the Chicago television buy also helps Casten. “One party calls the shots. We need a new Congress. Vote for a Democratic Congress, for an economy that works for everyone,” the Bloomberg ad said.
The National Republican Campaign Committee on Thursday bought radio time in Chicago with a flip-side-of-the-same-coin message in its spot.
“Democrats will blindly follow the Pelosi agenda. Higher taxes. Government-run health care. Even impeaching the president and members of the Supreme Court. Only Republicans can stop them. Only you can stop Nancy Pelosi.”
Hillary Clinton won the 6th by 6.8 percentage points in 2016 as voters gave Roskam an 18.4-percentage-point advantage over his opponent.
Trump won the 14th by 4 percentage points as Hultgren beat his challenger by 18.6 percentage points.
Democratic Illinois primary turnout in March also shows why Roskam and Hultgren face their biggest threats since they were first elected.
Last March in the 6th, some 67,013 pulled Democrat ballots, compared to 56,544 Republicans. In the 14th, the split between parties was about even – meaning Republicans did not have a running start.
Republicans, who control the White House, Senate and House, have problems other than Trump in holding on to these seats: first, the changing demographics in the Chicago suburbs favor Democrats; and second, the decades-long trend that the party in power loses seats in the mid-term elections.
The 6th District campaign is ending up as a knife fight between Roskam, 57, of Wheaton and Casten, 46, from Downers Grove, reflecting the campaigns run by the hard-edged candidates.
Casten fastens Roskam to Trump. Roskam hitches Casten to Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, who is also chairman of the Illinois Democratic Party — and demonized by Illinois Republicans up and down the ticket.
The 14th contest is less negative, reflecting the gentler personas of Underwood, 32, of Naperville and Hultgren, 52, of Plano. Newcomer Underwood has gained national attention in part because it is very rare for an African-American candidate to do this well in a majority white district.
Before Congress, Roskam and Hultgren both served in the House and Senate of the Illinois General Assembly.
Casten ran an energy company. Underwood is a nurse who worked on health policy at the Department of Health and Human Services in the Obama administration.
Two issues loom in these adjoining districts: health care and the Trump tax bill. Roskam and Hultgren voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act created under former President Barack Obama. Subsequent GOP health care bills Roskam and Hultgren supported did not provide the same robust provisions for people with pre-existing condition.
Roskam, on the Ways and Means Committee was an architect of the tax bill, which puts a $10,000 cap on federal income tax deductions for state and local taxes. With high local property taxes in these districts, a loss of these deductions is a potential pocketbook issue, depending on one’s total tax picture.
“I just voted for the first time in my life on Friday,” said Casten backer Ann Walther, 51, a nurse from Lombard.
“I’m tired of Trump and all the Republican stuff. I’m concerned about health care,” she said.
Paul Sirvatka, 55, a meteorologist from Glen Ellyn, said he will “probably” support Roskam.
“While I don’t really like party politics, I believe conservative philosophies are better.”
Carlos Lopez, 63, a construction worker from Woodstock, in the 14th, said he was undecided, but “right now we need a check on the president.”
Woodstock Independent editor Larry Lough said an anti-incumbency mood and the #MeToo movement have helped put the Hultgren seat in play.
“That Lauren Underwood is campaigning in McHenry, a graveyard for Democrats, indicates that there is an opening there for a bright female candidate,” Lough said.