In the frayed aftermath of the Nov. 3 election, the brilliant, engaging smile of U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood was severely tested.
Underwood, a Democrat, looked like a political goner on election night when GOP state Sen. Jim Oberweis appeared to be besting her in the hotly contested 14th Congressional District race.
As the returns rolled in, Oberweis was on TV, giddily gloating. But on Thursday, the Associated Press declared Underwood the victor, winning with 50.5%, ahead of Oberweis by 4,288 votes.
Two years ago, Underwood was a political newcomer in the suburban district that includes parts of Lake, McHenry, Kane, DeKalb, Kendall, DuPage and Will counties.
Her near loss surprised some observers, including me.
Underwood, an African American nurse, became the first woman and person of color to hold the 14th District seat. She knocked off four-term Republican Randy Hultgren in the blue wave of 2018.
Underwood, 34, is a rising star in the Democratic Party. In 2020, she raised over $7 million, compared with Oberweis’ $3 million.
Credibly positioned as a moderate Democrat in a swing district, she focused on health care reform and touted several bills she sponsored, legislation that was signed into law by President Donald J. Trump.
Oberweis, the wealthy chair of Oberweis Dairy, has run for office and lost — for governor, the U.S. Senate and Congress — at least six times, by my count.
Why so close? Two factors that have roiled our politics for far too long: race, and Donald J. Trump.
Oberweis aimed to capitalize on the anguish over the murder of George Floyd with a dark and misleading attack ad that accused Underwood of advocating for violence in the wake of nationwide protests.
The ad featured a video clip from a Chicago Sun-Times Editorial Board meeting. It shows Underwood saying: “With respect to rioting and looting, I think that we have seen many instances of beautiful protests.”
The scene jumps to fiery footage of burning cars and looted buildings from events in Kenosha, Aurora and Chicago.
“Riots are not beautiful, they’re ugly,” the narrator exhorts. “Vote against rioters and anyone who enables them. Vote against Lauren Underwood.”
She had been asked to respond to an Oberweis charge that she had not condemned rioting and looting. Her full reply: “I also, with respect to rioting and looting, I think that we have seen many instances of beautiful protests this summer as people have stood up for this cause of justice and equality.”
Underwood did not refer to rioting nor looting and has condemned such violence in other settings. PolitiFact and the Better Government Association fact-checked the ad and rated it “false.”
Her district is 86 percent white, and only 3.1 percent Black, according to recent U.S. Census estimates.
Some voters may have leaned into the idea that a young Black woman would embrace street violence. We all think alike, right?
Oberweis was also counting on Trump, who endorsed Oberweis and held a rally for him. On the cusp of the election, Oberweis took the stage at a Trump rally in Kenosha to warm up the crowd. He was rewarded with a shout-out from the president.
It wasn’t enough, and Underwood got her smile back. Oberweis plans to request a recount.
In her statement claiming victory, she also got in a dig: “I am honored to be re-elected to represent Illinois’ beautiful 14th District in Congress.”
The Joe Biden presidency and what it means for Illinois: Join Laura Washington and Chicago Sun-Times Washington Bureau Chief Lynn Sweet for a post-election conversation with top news makers, At The Virtual Table, Nov. 19 at 6:30 pm.
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