Illinois Democrats try to hold suburban U.S. House seats in midterms

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Congressional candidates (left to right) Democratic incumbents Lauren Underwood and Sean Casten and Republican challengers Orland Park Mayor Keith Pekau and Kendall County Board President Scott R. Gryder.

Ashlee Rezin; Brian Ernst; Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times-file; Facebook

Four years ago, first-time candidates Lauren Underwood and Sean Casten flipped U.S. House seats in once blood-red Republican congressional districts west and south of Chicago. 

Both comfortably won reelection two years later, but this fall they are running in newly redrawn districts against Republican challengers with name recognition among their suburban voters.

In the 14th Congressional District, which extends from Joliet west into rural areas around Mendota and Ottawa, and north to DeKalb, Underwood faces Scott Gryder, president of the Kendall County Board and chairman of the county’s Republican Party.

In the 6th Congressional District, which comprises parts of suburban Cook and DuPage counties extending from Tinley Park to Lombard, Casten’s opponent is Orland Park Mayor Keith Pekau, who has gotten airtime on the Fox News network thanks to his vocal opposition to the state’s mask mandate and attacks on state-level criminal justice reform legislation.

The congressional districts mapped last year by the Democratic super-majorities in the state Legislature were drawn to give the party an advantage, and analysts have rated both seats as likely wins for Democrats. 

On top of that, Underwood and Casten both have out-spent their Republican rivals, with Underwood’s $3.7 million more than 10 times the $300,000 Gryder had spent as of the latest campaign finance reports. Casten has outspent Pekau nearly 5 to 1.

Republican Kendall County Board President Scott Gryder (left); Democratic U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood (right).

Facebook; Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times-file

“We are running to win and to do this work. This is a time that requires serious leadership, because we are facing serious issues in our community,” Underwood said in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times. “The majority of voters in this district have not seen my name on a ballot before. … We are going to run through the tape over the next [month].” 

Underwood touts passage of the the CARES Act and American Rescue Plan, pandemic relief packages that pumped trillions in spending into the economy, and the Inflation Reduction Act, among the major achievements of her two terms in Congress.

‘Majority-maker district’

Gryder, who won a five-way GOP primary as one of two more moderate candidates in the field, said the federal largesse has triggered rampant inflation, arguing that Republican control of the House would restrain government spending and President Joe Biden.

“This is a majority-maker district,” Gryder said. “And that means two really important things: a check on what this president is doing, and shutting down this free flow of money they’re sending out from D.C.”

With Democrats now clinging to narrow majorities in the U.S. House and Senate, Underwood said that Democratic priorities for the next Congress that are broadly popular in the district are at risk.

That includes protecting abortion rights and passing an assault weapons ban. She also accused Gryder of being coy about how he would vote if he’s in the House in 2024 and has to certify a Democratic president’s victory. 

“[Voters] are very concerned about the future of our democracy, the rise of political violence,” she said.

Gryder said he is “pro-life,” but would not ban abortions in cases of incest, rape or when the mother’s health is endangered. On gun control, Gryder said strict gun laws have not reduced crime in Illinois, and he said that mass shootings could be addressed as a mental health crisis. 

Asked how he would have voted in 2020, when more than 100 House Republicans opposed certifying the electoral count after Joe Biden’s victory, Gryder said, “Joe Biden is our president. You can look at what’s going on in our country, and he’s one of the worst presidents in history.”

‘We have a lot more to do’

In the Democratic primary in June, Casten handily beat fellow Democratic incumbent Marie Newman, who opted to run against Casten after her own district was redrawn. The victory came two weeks after Casten’s 16-year-old daughter, Gwen, died of cardiac arrhythmia. 

A former green energy executive, Casten has been a strident advocate for climate change policy, gun control and abortion rights, and like Underwood, is proud to take credit for his votes in favor of COVID relief packages and the climate action in the Inflation Reduction Act.

Democratic U.S. Rep. Sean Casten (left); Republican Orland Park Mayor Keith Pekau (right).

Brian Ernst; Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times-file

“Yes, we have inflation, but wages are also rising,” Casten said. “We passed the biggest infrastructure bill ever, the biggest climate change bill ever, we lowered prescription drug costs for people on Medicare, we reinstated the Superfund program. We have a lot more to do, a lot more to build on that foundation.”

Pekau has made crime a top issue in his campaign against Casten and includes Democrats such as Gov. J.B. Pritzker, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx in his attacks. With Pekau’s support, Orland Park has sued the governor over pandemic restrictions and pledged not to enforce COVID rules mandated by the state.

In September, Fox News host Tucker Carlson played a clip of Pekau criticizing the impact of the Illinois criminal justice reform package known as the SAFE-T Act, and Pekau last week appeared as a guest on Laura Ingraham’s show on the conservative network.

‘The 2nd Amendment exists’

In an interview with The Sun-Times, Pekau touted the Orland Park Police’s cooperation with the federal Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco and Firearms in targeting weapons offenders, but said gun control measures at the federal level will not impact crime. 

“The 2nd Amendment exists, and we have gun laws currently in place. … We need to enforce the laws that currently are on the books, but [Foxx] won’t do that,” Pekau said. “We’d like local prosecutors to handle [gun charges], but where there is a federal offense … we can take it to the U.S. attorney.”

Casten has aired ads against Pekau that say Republican control of Congress will mean a nationwide ban on abortion. Pekau has demanded Casten take down the ads, and says he believes abortion laws should be left to the state. While he describes himself as “pro-life,” Pekau does believe abortions should be allowed in cases of rape, incest, or danger to the mother’s life.

Casten said that if Republicans win control of the House, they are likely to pass an abortion ban, and gun control and other “reasonable” legislation will go nowhere.

“To be running against someone who said … that the last thing we need is more gun laws, saying he agrees with the Dobbs decision, this isn’t remotely in the zone of what reasonable is,” Casten said.

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October 24, 2022 at 06:47AM

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