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.
Hultgren has run a re-election campaign in the 14th Congressional District this fall in a style that matches his low-key demeanor. In Lauren Underwood, he faces a challenger who has given Democrats hope they can win the seat for the first time in a decade, despite the area’s past Republican leanings. The extensive district encompasses the far northern, western and southwestern edges of the Chicago area, a blend of booming suburbs and cornfields, where Hultgren’s platform of lower taxes and smaller government has resonated for nearly a decade.
Hultgren frequently appears at small community gatherings around the district or fundraising coffees at constituents’ homes, but has mostly avoided forums and debates. Underwood, a 32-year-old registered nurse and Naperville native, meanwhile, has raised $3 million during the campaign, with $1.6 million in the bank at the beginning of the October stretch run. She repeatedly has criticized Hultgren for the number of town hall meetings he’s held in the district. At the debate, with her opponent sitting four feet to the right, she said the district needs to rediscover a representative who has a “fighting spirit.”
Underwood, a former policy adviser in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services during President Barack Obama’s administration, has had to work harder than Hultgren to introduce herself to voters. She regularly touts campaign events and last week held a series of small group talks with constituents alongside U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth. A few weeks ago, she flew to New York for a fundraiser headlined by Hillary Clinton.
Hultgren, who said he’s been busy knocking on doors throughout the district, readily acknowledges this election cycle will be a test. He called Underwood “a very compelling candidate.”
“But this is still a center-right district,” he said moments before navigating his way through a debate crowd filled with Underwood backers. “The money is not the only piece. Every race is like a puzzle, you have to see how all the pieces fit together.”
Privately, party leaders on both sides have expressed surprise the campaign is as close as several polls indicate and that Hultgren hasn’t spent more money to lock down the victory.
Hultgren in the third quarter of the year spent about $388,000 on his campaign. Underwood spent more than $1 million. Hultgren brushed aside the numbers discrepancy.
“It comes down to candidates,” Hultgren said. “It comes down to issues. … People in this district really don’t want government-run health care.”
But whether the unabashed progressive has rallied enough voters to push the district, traditionally a reliable Republican bulwark, into the Democrats’ victory column remains to be seen.
“It’s great that she has the spirit and all the action,” said voter Henry Black of Sandwich, who usually supports Democrats and came out to hear Underwood in person for the first time. “But the voters here, they don’t want to change that much.”
The Hultgren vs. Underwood contest hasn’t drawn the same publicity and hype as the neighboring race between Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam and Democratic challenger Sean Casten. But the 14th District also tilted further Republican two years ago than the 6th District, so a GOP loss could be especially disappointing for the party or a significant boon for Democrats.
Republican state Rep. Keith Wheeler, who attended the Kendall County event, said it’s clear Democrats are full of energy this election and have put together a formidable operation in support of Underwood, as evidenced by the large courthouse crowd. Still, Wheeler said he hopes the district’s conservatives, motivated by property tax concerns and an assortment of local tax referendums, will turn out to also back Hultgren, allowing Republicans to safely surf any potential “blue wave.”
“If they come out to vote like they did in 2016 and 2017, in Republican areas that normally do well, he’ll do well,” Wheeler said.
Hultgren climbed to Congress via a by-the-book political career that saw him rise through local and state government. He served on the DuPage County Board. He was elected to the Illinois House. When Roskam left the Illinois Senate to run for Congress, Hultgren moved up to fill his seat.
Then in 2010, Hultgren defeated Ethan Hastert in the Republican primary to run for the seat his father, U.S. House Speaker Dennis Hastert, held for 20 years. He defeated U.S. Rep. Bill Foster to return the district to Republican hands after a single two-year Democratic term and hasn’t been seriously challenged since, even after a redrawing of the district boundaries prompted the brief threat of a 2012 primary challenge from former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh.
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.
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.”
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.
Region: Chicago,Features,City: Chicago
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October 26, 2018 at 06:27AM