The 14th Congressional District has been a Republican bastion for years. Is 2018 the year it turns blue?

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Randy Hultgren, wearing a gray dress shirt and no tie, strolled down the center aisle of the stuffy second-floor auditorium inside the 154-year-old Kendall County Courthouse, smiling and pausing briefly to shake a few hands.

He sidestepped his way through the throng of people toward the front of the historic courtroom, introduced himself to the community forum moderators and took a seat behind his name placard at the wooden debate table.

“This is an important election,” Hultgren said a few minutes later, his tone clear and measured. “… I humbly ask for your support.”

Flashy is not a word people use to describe the Republican congressman from Plano. Even when addressing large crowds such as the one crammed into the Yorkville courthouse for Tuesday’s live radio debate, Hultgren is soft-spoken and demure. He answers questions, both at forums and during interviews, in a calm, deliberate manner.

The night Hultgren won his congressional seat for the first time, he said, he skipped the champagne that supporters uncorked at the victory celebration. Instead, he said, he hit a McDonald’s drive-thru in Geneva for a late-night Diet Coke on the way home. His operation was helped by TV ads from outside groups, but he credited his victory to old-fashioned campaigning for his victory.

“This was not a race won on TV or through the newspaper; this was an election won door-to-door, parade-to-parade, person-to-person,” Hultgren said at the time.

Health care flashpoint

At Tuesday’s forum, both candidates tried to woo undecided voters and motivate their bases as they touched upon the campaign’s main issues: the Republican tax bill, the Affordable Care Act, Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation, President Donald Trump, student loans and climate change.

Hultgren drew groans from the crowd, which was decidedly pro-Underwood, when he twice said his opponent “didn’t understand” legislation or language in bills. He also noted he has four children — two in college and two in high school — facts that could appeal to family-oriented voters in the district.

Illinois midterms election coverage »

Underwood centered her attacks on health care. As she has throughout much of her campaign, she contends the GOP efforts to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act last year would have offered fewer protections to people with pre-existing conditions such as her heart condition.

“I, for one, am grateful that it didn’t pass. Because we must ensure that individuals with pre-existing conditions are, one, able to access insurance coverage,” Underwood said Tuesday. “But also that they cannot be charged higher rates.”

Hultgren countered that the Republican health care proposal wouldn’t allow insurers to ask about pre-existing conditions or drop coverage as a result.

“The only thing I can guess is that Lauren hasn’t read the bill,” Hultgren said. “I encourage her to read it.”

A May 2017 report from the Congressional Budget Office regarding the proposed legislation had this to say about the issue: “Community-rated premiums would rise over time, and people who are less healthy (including those with preexisting or newly acquired medical conditions) would ultimately be unable to purchase comprehensive nongroup health insurance at premiums comparable to those under current law, if they could purchase it at all.

“Over time,” the report continued, “it would become more difficult for less healthy people (including people with preexisting medical conditions) in those states to purchase insurance because their premiums would continue to increase rapidly.”

Underwood said she has dedicated her career “working to expand health care coverage to communities across our country and added, “we need to create some real changes” to the ACA marketplace “to make it more affordable for middle-class families.” And Underwood said she supports allowing the federal government to negotiate drug prices.

“Health care is the No. 1 issue in this election, and it will be my priority,” she said.

Hultgren also touted a strong U.S. economy as a reason to stay the course, saying the country is doing better and is less worried about terrorism than when he first visited the same forum four elections ago.

“Right now, we are living in some of the best economic times in our lifetime,” Hultgren said. “… Opportunity is on the rise.”

He said growth and more jobs are the best way to deal with a rising federal deficit, and said he wouldn’t entertain cuts to Social Security and Medicare to deal with it.

Underwood meanwhile criticized last year’s Republican income tax overhaul for fueling the rising federal deficit.

“Middle-class folks, small businesses are not seeing the benefit from that tax policy,” Underwood said.

Hultgren framed the campaign in simple terms.

“Her goal would be focused more on government solutions, and less on focusing on individual and families and communities,” Hultgren said. “The most important thing isn’t limited government, I recognize that government does have a role. But the power of this great nation is in the individual.”

Underwood outraises Hultgren in latest fundraising quarter, new finance reports show »

Air wars

Now facing a serious challenge, Hultgren started his TV ad campaign with a spot about his work on human trafficking, running an emotional commercial about an Oswego tattoo artist who removes tattoos from victims. Another ad touts his work on science and technology education.

Amid those positive spots, the National Republican Campaign Committee aired an ad calling Underwood “Madigan’s candidate,” an attempt to tie her to Democratic House Speaker Michael Madigan in a strategy that the party has tried in other close Illinois congressional races even though Madigan is speaker in Springfield, not Washington.

Hultgren finished September with $1 million in the bank that could pay for a late-campaign advertising blitz. He also reported a maximum $2,700 contribution from U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte, a Montana Republican who assaulted a reporter last year and whom Trump recently praised by saying: “Any guy that can do a body slam, he’s my kind of — he’s my guy.”

Underwood’s advertising has followed a national Democratic trend to pressure Republicans over health care. Her campaign ads take a page from Foster’s 2008 victory in the district. At the time, his campaign ads didn’t include the word “Democrat.” Likewise, her spots and logo simply say “Underwood for Congress.”

“People like it when you talk about getting something done together instead of fighting with the other side,” Kane County Democratic Party Chairman Mark Guethle said.

Underwood is hoping her campaign resonates with progressives and enough centrist Republicans upset with Trump. She 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.

Hultgren won the district by 19 points last time. Trump also carried the district. When most of the collar counties backed Obama in 2012, McHenry and Kendall counties both voted for Mitt Romney.

At the Kendall County event, Hultgren withstood snickers when he spoke about his record on the environment and helping working families. He was not rattled, pausing to let the crowd laugh or clap or yell, then finished his point.

When the debate was over, he stood to shake Underwood’s hand, smiling as he looked directly at her. The crowd broke into a chant: “Lau-ren! Lau-ren! Lau-ren!”

Hultgren speed-walked past the crowd and through the wooden double doors at the back of the old courtroom toward the stairwell, monitored by a cadre of sheriff’s deputies. A few attendees raced after him, shouting questions.

Then he briskly bounded down the courthouse steps to the parking lot, alone under the yellow halo of the streetlight as he headed toward his car.

poconnell@chicagotribune.com

mriopell@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @pmocwriter

Twitter @MikeRiopell

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October 26, 2018 at 06:27AM

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