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Democrat Lauren Underwood wins in a close call: Kenosha, Trump pumped turnout for Republican Jim Oberweis

“In the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic, a self-funding candidate, historic turnout, we won. And made history one more time,” Rep. Underwood told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Congresswoman Lauren Underwood watches National Election Results on the TV at an election night headquarter in St. Charles, Ill., Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. AP called the race for Underwood on Thursday, Nov. 12.. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh) ORG XMIT: ILNH105
Congresswoman Lauren Underwood watches national election results on TV at election night headquarters in St. Charles, Ill., Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020. AP called the race for Underwood on Thursday, Nov. 12.
Nam Y. Huh/AP file photo

WASHINGTON — What McHenry County Democratic Chair Kristina Zahorik called a “red tide” fueled by President Donald Trump almost swept away freshman Rep. Lauren Underwood, who, in a close call, beat Republican Jim Oberweis on Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

According to AP, with most of the votes in the 14th Congressional District counted, Underwood won with 200,037 votes, or 50.5% of the ballots, to Oberweis with 195,749 votes, or 49.5% — putting Underwood 4,288 votes ahead.

Oberweis, a state senator, will not concede and will seek a recount as the campaign explores its legal options, spokesman Travis Akin said.

Underwood said she was confident a recount will not change the results.

“In the face of a once-in-a-century pandemic, a self-funding candidate, historic turnout, we won. And made history one more time,” Underwood told the Chicago Sun-Times.

In 2018, riding on a blue wave that swept the nation in the wake of Trump’s election, Underwood flipped this heavily GOP district, beating then-Rep. Randy Hultgren, R-Ill., by 14,871 votes, defeating him 52.5% to 47.5%.

What made Underwood’s victory historic, besides the flip, was she was — and still is — the rare Black candidate who could win in a heavily white district.

Underwood was a GOP target since the moment she won in 2018, with Republicans betting her win was a blue wave fluke.

Now Underwood has done it twice, according to the AP.

TRUMP’S COATTAILS FUELED OBERWEIS

Underwood, 34, is a Naperville resident and 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, and once in the House, made health issues a centerpiece of her work.

Jim Oberweis, 74, lives in Sugar Grove. His name is well known because he is the chairman of the Oberweis ice cream and dairy business — and because of a string of failed campaigns for the House, U.S. Senate and governor.

The 14th Congressional District surrounds Chicago and includes parts of suburban and rural Lake, McHenry, Kane, DeKalb, Kendall, DuPage and Will counties.

Turnout swelled in this district, as it did across the state and the nation.

In 2018, there were 297,199 votes in the Illinois 14 contest. In 2020, that jumped to 395,786 ballots, according to AP’s count of almost all the ballots.

In 2018, Underwood won all seven counties in the sprawling 14th District.

In 2020, according to AP, Underwood won in DuPage, Kane, Lake and Will counties. Oberweis beat her in DeKalb, McHenry and Kendall.

The powerhouse counties in this district — those with the most precincts and voters — are McHenry, with 144 precincts, and Kane, with 104 precincts.

Underwood won McHenry by 50.3% in 2018. Oberweis in 2020 drove Underwood down to 46.8% in McHenry, banking 53% of the vote.

Kane County contributed heavily to Underwood’s survival, where she bested Oberweis with 51.2% of the vote.

While increasingly Democratic DuPage reliably delivered 62% of its vote for Underwood in 2018 and 2020, there are only 16 DuPage precincts.

The numbers that are the most telling come from McHenry County, which borders Wisconsin and is not far from Kenosha.

In late August, Kenosha exploded as peaceful protests turned violent in the wake of a white police officer shooting Evanston-raised Jacob Blake, a Black man, multiple times in the back.

Both Trump and President-elect Joe Biden traveled to Kenosha in September with Wisconsin, a battleground state, up for grabs.

Trump used Kenosha to amplify his law-and-order message, which Oberweis embraced, falsely accusing Underwood of being soft on crime.

The district takes in Antioch, the home of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teen charged with a double murder in Kenosha whose defense has become a cause among a segment of Trump’s supporters.

Turnout surged in McHenry. Trump won McHenry County while the other counties with precincts in Illinois 14 went for Biden.

Lake County, which also borders Wisconsin and is close to Kenosha, also helped Underwood survive.

In those 65 Lake County precincts — in the most conservative portions of the county — Lake County Democratic chair Lauren Beth Gash helped dilute the Trump tide with a big mail ballot drive and a hunt to deliver sporadic voters. Lake County gave Underwood 50.2% of the vote to Oberweis, with 49.8%

The numbers suggest that Oberweis, by welding himself to Trump, benefited enormously from his coattails.

Trump endorsed Oberweis in a tweet in late October, held a tele-rally for him, and on election eve, Oberweis was at Trump’s rally in Kenosha on stage warming up the crowd before Trump spoke — and when Trump did, he gave Oberweis a shoutout.

Zahorik, the McHenry County Democratic chief, told the Sun-Times Oberweis was boosted by piggybacking on Trump boat rallies on the Fox River, events with Donald Trump Jr. and other Trump-related activities.

“I think that in McHenry County, certainly while there was a red tide, we certainly provided some mitigation of a wall to stop it,” Zahorik said.

Akin, the Oberweis spokesman, said, “The issue of rioting and violence and the things people were witnessing were affecting the district,” mentioning incidents in Naperville and Aurora that “made a big impact on people in the suburbs.”

He added, “I think that President Trump’s endorsement really helped get our base and the Republican vote out. That really helped. We needed a strong, robust turnout of Republicans on Election Day and those things that we did with the president I think helped drive Republicans to the polls.” .

DIFFERENT COVID CAMPAIGNS

With a national fundraising base — Underwood’s 2018 win drew national attention early on — Underwood’s receipts totaled $7,147,077 as of Sept. 30. Oberweis, including $1.7 million he loaned to his campaign, raised $3,015,192.

Once the pandemic hit, Underwood revamped her campaign, encouraged masks and social distancing and moved most of her campaign virtual. Oberweis relied more on in-person events.

“We made more than 350,000 calls, 220,000 texts to voters,” Underwood told the Sun-Times.

“I mean historic levels of investment in digital organizing in our district.”

Said Underwood, “I am really proud of that work our team did in this campaign.”