With the emerald fairways of the Pinecrest Golf Club in Huntley serving as a serene backdrop through the picture windows behind her, Lauren Underwood held a conversation centered on Social Security issues with a crowd of potential suburban voters.
The group assembled for the wide-ranging policy discussion with the Democratic nurse from Naperville consisted mostly of people 65 and older and primarily women.
A special guest at the recent Wednesday morning event, Jon “Bowzer” Bauman — a former member of the band Sha Na Na, who is now president of a Social Security political action committee — noted the record number of women running for political office this year. The small crowd burst into applause.
“No more old white men!” someone shouted.
Underwood, a 32-year-old black woman who worked as an adviser in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama, is attempting to unseat Republican U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren of Plano, who is 52 and white. The vast 14th Congressional District, a mix of western and northern suburbs, exurbs and farmland, has typically been a strong base of support for the GOP and was once represented by Dennis Hastert, who served as U.S. House speaker.
Underwood, buoyed by robust fundraising and an increasing national spotlight, is trying to change that.
“We’ve been talking to farmers who tell us, like, no Democrat has knocked on their door in 10 years,” Underwood said. “Not congressional. Just no Democrat, right? And so the opportunity to show up in places that have been ignored, overlooked, where no one has come and tried to engage them, try to talk with them and to try to hear from folks directly. That is what we’re doing.”
During a year when the #MeToo movement and women’s issues have risen to a prominent place in advance of the midterm elections, Underwood is hoping her campaign resonates with progressives and enough centrist Republicans upset with President Donald Trump. Her energetic campaign is trying to make headway in territory that has been reliably conservative: suburban families, small towns and agricultural areas where 87 percent of residents are white, according to U.S. census data.
While the neighboring 6th Congressional District — the site of a heated tussle between incumbent Rep. Peter Roskam and Democratic challenger Sean Casten — has drawn most of the attention and millions of dollars in contributions from national sources, the 14th District campaign has emerged on Democrats’ radar screen.
This week, the House Majority PAC aligned with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi announced it was spending $887,000 on a television commercial targeting Hultgren. The group Women Vote!, associated with pro-choice Emily’s List also contributed about $135,000 into the race in the last week of September for pro-Underwood and anti-Hultgren advertisements and mailers.
Hultgren said he knows he’s in for a battle.
“It’s going to be close,” he said. “I think whoever is going to motivate their base more is going to do well. … I’m hopeful, but obviously I’ll be worried until the polls close.”
The golf course meeting spot where Underwood met and posed for pictures with voters is in the heart of McHenry County, territory that has been a dominant area of support for Hultgren.
The county delivered more than 60,000 votes for the Republican in his 19-point re-election victory in 2016. Hultgren paired his domination in McHenry with a big win in Kane, the counties with the most total voters. The margin two years ago was closer in Lake and Will counties, where Hultgren won by only a margin of a few thousand votes. And though only a small part of DuPage County is in the 14th District, voters there voted for Democrat Jim Walz over Hultgren, the only county he lost in that election.
When most of the collar counties backed Barack Obama in 2012, McHenry and Kendall counties both voted for Mitt Romney. Trump won McHenry County by 8 points, while he and Hillary Clinton virtually tied in Kendall, with the president winning by fewer than 100 votes.
The mood in the country in the Trump era has played a role in Underwood’s run for Congress. The Women’s March held in the days after Trump’s inauguration, Underwood said, helped boost her desire to run for political office for the first time.
“Millions of women stepped forward and said, ‘We want some changes. We are here. We are not going to tolerate this sexist, vulgar president who is smearing and disrespecting women every day. We have some policy goals as women that we support on a nonpartisan basis,’” Underwood said.
The candidate directly addressed gender again in a post on Twitter last Monday, referring to the Senate’s confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.
“This has been an emotional week for a lot of us. Use that energy to send a message and elect this community’s first-EVER female representative,” Underwood wrote.
A record number of women — 234 total, 182 Democrats and 52 Republicans — are running for House seats, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.
On the campaign trail, Underwood says it is gender, more than race, that has bubbled to the surface.
“I thought that I would experience racism in running for Congress. I was ready for it. I was steeled against it. And (I) did not and have not encountered racism. Sexism and misogyny have been so apparent. I had not experienced that in my career, because I had spent my career in this female-dominated profession. … That has been something that I didn’t expect. That has been something where I’ve had to adapt to, to learn to overcome.”
Voters sometimes challenge her on policy positions, she said, intimating that her views carry less weight because she isn’t married and doesn’t have children. Men have occasionally tried to physically intimidate her, she said, by standing close to her or hovering over her during interactions at campaign events.
“This is what sexism looks like,” Underwood said she told herself, “this is what it feels like.”
Cathy Johnson, a precinct committeewoman for McHenry County Democrats, said Underwood has injected a new energy into the campaign, something she hopes builds momentum for her candidacy.
“We haven’t always had good candidates who have been impressive, so people have been stuck voting for Republicans,” Johnson said. “People around here used to be afraid of telling people they were Democrats, afraid their signs would be torn down. Now they’re excited.”
The views were decidedly different at a recent GOP fall rally in Geneva, where about 100 people gathered on a hot September afternoon to hear from Gov. Bruce Rauner, attorney general candidate Erika Harold and a panel of regional candidates at the Kane County gathering. Hultgren was on hand, shaking hands and speaking with voters.
As the party faithful munched on hot dogs and chips, the local Republican leaders scoffed at the notion that Democrats such as Underwood are primed for a series of wins across the country, including in their territory.
“Have you heard about the blue wave? You’re going to feel blue as you wave goodbye to your paycheck,” said Bob Grogan, a state central committeeman, as laughter rippled through the right field pavilion at the Kane County Cougars’ ballpark.
Republicans pointed to a robust economy and concerns about taxes, which they said will boost their chances in November.
Stan Bond, a Republican state central committeeman and village trustee in Montgomery, south of Aurora, believes that pocketbook issues are at the forefront of voters’ minds. If people are feeling good about the economy and the jobs situation, Bond said, “then they’re not going to move away from someone for someone else they don’t know.”
Bond said he’s worried about a move toward more socialized medicine, too many taxes and the role that state politics will have on the federal elections.
“I’m not a big fan of the government doing something the private sector can do,” Bond said. Bond said he wants to offer “a helping hand, not a handout” and doesn’t want lawmakers to delay solving today’s financial problems, leaving them for future generations to resolve.
“We have to worry about going into a death spiral because of taxes,” Bond said.
For Elsie Campbell Morrissey of Sandwich, who wore a Hultgren T-shirt to the rally, Underwood is too much of a one-note candidate, ultra-focused on health care at the expense of other issues.
“I’m worried his opponent is about big government health care,” Morrissey said. “There’s more issues out there that affect the people of the 14th District. … Randy is worthy of winning.”
And Republicans need to maintain control of the House, Morrissey said, to avoid potential impeachment proceedings against Trump.
“If we impeach Trump, well, we lose the impact of the Trump economy,” she said. “I think there’s so much more to governing a country than just being hateful, and I don’t think the Democrats understand that. I think they think that if they hate Trump, they are doing something good for the country. And I say, look at what the man is doing despite all the hate.”
Kane County voters, however, turned away Trump during the last election, voting for Clinton by a margin of 10 points. A slice of the 14th District is in eastern DeKalb County, which also voted for Clinton, and northern and western Lake County, another area that backed the Democrat two years ago. Hultgren, however, won more than 60 percent of the vote in DeKalb in 2016 and 56 percent in Lake.
At the golf club event in Huntley, Diane Ayers said she believes the district is slowly changing, turning from reliably red to “lavender.” Ayers has lived in Huntley for more than two decades, and she said there’s a palpable sense of excitement among local Democrats.
“I haven’t seen as much enthusiasm in the last 26 years as I’ve seen in the last year and a half,” Ayers said. “I think Lauren is articulate and very passionate person, and that’s exactly what we need.”
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October 5, 2018 at 02:33PM