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How Democrat Lauren Underwood, Republican Jim Oberweis are closing their lllinois 14 Congress race

The government response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a top reelection issue for Rep. Underwood. State Sen. Oberweis is making “law and order” a theme.

In the 14th Congressional District in Illinois, Republican state Sen. Jim Oberweis is battling freshman Democratic Rep. Lauren Underwood.
Sun-Times files

WASHINGTON — A new behind-the-scenes documentary debuting recently on Showtime, “Surge,” captured Democrat Lauren Underwood’s stunned reaction when she learned on election night 2018 she won her long shot House bid in the heavily GOP 14th District.

“Is this for real?” she asked staffers monitoring the returns in St. Charles. Told it was, the shocked Underwood said, “No way, no way, no way, no way, no way.”

She beat four-term Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., 52.5 percent to 47.5 percent.

Underwood’s victory was remarkable because the top of the Democratic ticket, Gov. J.B. Pritzker, lost the district she won in 2018, and voters in the GOP turf preferred President Donald Trump in 2016.

She was bolstered by the blue wave unleashed by Trump’s election.

Underwood is the first female and person of color to represent the 14th Congressional District in Congress. Underwood is the rare Black candidate to ever win a House seat in a majority White district. She is one of the higher-profile freshmen in the big and most diverse class ever elected to Congress.

In 2020, Underwood, 34, a Naperville resident, is battling state Sen. Jim Oberweis, 74, who lives in Sugar Grove.

The sprawling 14th Congressional District hugs the Chicago outer suburbs up to the Wisconsin border and includes parts of Lake, McHenry, Kane, DeKalb, Kendall, DuPage and Will Counties. It meanders from Antioch to Yorkville, about an hour drive away, and beyond.

The cautious Underwood, aware she represents a district with many GOP voters, has not aligned herself with any of the organized House Democratic political factions.

Here’s the Illinois 14 story so far:

The latest: Oberweis last week landed a sought-after endorsement from Trump. Trump said in a tweet, Oberweis “will be a terrific Congressman for Illinois! A successful businessman, he will Create Jobs, Lower Taxes, Defend Law & Order, and Protect your Second Amendment from the Radical Left. Jim has my Complete and Total Endorsement!”

Meanwhile, in the final days of the election, the Democratic-allied House Majority super PAC bought $560,000 of TV time to slam Oberweis on several health care related issues, including his opposition to abortion and his support for repealing the Affordable Care Act, which guarantees coverage of pre-existing conditions. The ad concludes, “The worst thing Jim Oberweis is against … is us.”

Underwood’s closing spot — a positive, not mentioning Oberweis — showing people in masks, highlights the COVID-19 pandemic. Her closing message for a second term is, “There is still so much to do for the health and safety of our loved ones.”

The pandemic highlights an Underwood calling card.

A registered nurse whose pre-Congress career was mainly in public health policy — she worked in the Obama administration at the Department of Health and Human Services — Underwood ran on health care in 2018.

In Congress, she is focused on health related legislation. Elements of her measures, including lowering insulin prices, have made it into three bills Trump signed into law. Trump also signed a bill where she was the chief sponsor regarding veterans suicide.

The government response to the COVID-19 pandemic is a top Underwood reelection issue.

Oberweis is making “law and order” a theme.

His closing TV spot is a hit on Underwood that flunks a truth test as he seeks to portray her as soft on crime. He takes a snippet of a statement she made to the Chicago Sun-Times editorial board to try to create the false impression she thinks destructive riots are “peaceful protests.”

The role of money: Underwood is ranked by the Center for Responsive Politics as one of the poorest freshmen in Congress — her net worth at most is about $30,000. The multimillionaire Oberweis is so rich he has, through the years, poured millions of his own dollars into his failed campaigns: In 2014, a Senate bid; in 2008, special and general House elections: a 2006 governor bid; and 2004 and 2002 Senate bids.

Oberweis’ House run is viable because he is self-funding. As of Sept. 30, according to the latest Federal Election Commission reports, he loaned his campaign $1.7 million.

Campaign cash stats: According to the FEC, as of Sept. 30, Underwood’s receipts totaled $7,147,077. Oberweis, including his loan, took in $3,015,192. Underwood started the final stretch of the campaign with $1.8 million cash-on-hand compared to about $700,000 for Oberweis.

The role of Oberweis Dairy: Oberweis is the chairman of the well-known Oberweis Dairy, and his ice cream — as in previous campaigns — plays a ubiquitous featured role since he is handing it out in public stops. Even though all campaign spending is supposed to appear on FEC reports, Oberweis does not disclose the dairy costs. A spokesman said Oberweis “personally” pays for the products.

Oberweis said on his Sun-Times questionnaire, “Bailouts and stimulus bills are only temporary solutions at best” in dealing with the COVID-19 economic crisis. In July, the Oberweis Dairy received a $5.6 million federal Paycheck Protection Program pandemic forgivable loan.

Predictions: The Cook Political Report rates the Illinois 14 contest as “likely Democratic.” The University of Virginia Center for Politics also projects the outcome as “likely Democratic.”