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The U.S. Capitol dome in Washington, Aug. 12, 2022. A handful of Congressional districts in the collar counties of Chicago could play a role in the Republican effort to flip the U.S. House.

Patrick Semansky

Democrats look to hold on to House seats in Chicago’s far western and southwestern suburbs

Democratic U.S. Rep. Bill Foster thinks he has a good chance of convincing conservative women in Illinois’ reshaped 11th congressional district to vote blue this year.

“I think there are many — it’s fair to say — Republican-leaning women, who were willing to vote Republican because they didn’t believe that Roe versus Wade would ever come under serious threat,” he told WBEZ.

“Now that everyone understands this is Donald Trump’s Supreme Court, they also understand that the only protection against this is Democratic majorities in the House and the Senate.”

Foster is one of many hoping that divisive national issues, such as access to reproductive healthcare, will galvanize voters at the local level this November to vote for Democrats like him. And his race is one of a handful in Illinois that state and national party operatives on both sides of the aisle have identified as a route toward flipping the U.S. House to Republican control.

“To some extent, we think the road to electing Kevin McCarthy Speaker of the House leads through Illinois,” said Illinois Republican Party Chairman Don Tracy, speaking about the representative from California who is currently the Republican minority leader of the House.

The real battleground in Illinois for flipping the U.S. House is in the rural or downstate races of the 17th and 13th districts, according to one political analyst. But state and national GOP leadership also have their eyes on two races in the collar counties of Chicago — Foster’s 11th district and the 14th district represented by Democratic U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood — as a way of bolstering chances for a Republican majority.

‘Candidates still matter’

Underwood faces a challenge from Scott Gryder, a three-term Kendall County Commissioner who also serves as the board’s chairman. In an interview, Gryder pointed to what he called “free money” flowing from Washington and the need to reel in what Republicans see as “reckless” spending of the Biden Administration. Underwood, though, has a significant financial advantage over Gryder — raking in $5 million to his $156,088 through June of this year.

In the neighboring 11th district, Foster faces a challenge from Republican Catalina Lauf, a former Trump Administration appointee who worked under U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. The daughter of a Central American immigrant, Lauf’s priorities include “enforcing law and order and securing the border.” Her campaign website also states she’d aim to “get Critical Race Theory out” of school curriculums. Lauf has gained some momentum financially, with $1.4 million, to Foster’s $2.3 million.

“She is very good at fundraising and getting out in the community. She’s extremely personable and attractive, and feisty and assertive without being obnoxious,” Tracy said.

But, despite recent polling that shows Illinois Republicans are largely aligned with former President Donald Trump, Lauf’s far-right views may actually harm her chances in a district that, in recent history, has voted Democrats into presidential office, with low margins for GOP candidates, one experienced analyst says.

“Candidates still matter,” said David Wasserman, a senior editor responsible for analyzing U.S. House Races at The Cook Political Report. “And Catalina Lauf is not the type of Republican who would put this seat in play — she is a Trump Republican running in an area that’s quite hostile to Trump. So that makes matters a little bit easier for Bill Foster.”

Lauf might be aware of that. According to the political blog Capitol Fax, Lauf’s campaign website once highlighted her views on abortion, describing her as “a pro-life conservative.” But that section on her issues tab has since been taken down — an instance that’s perhaps part of a larger trend of conservative candidates scrubbing their campaign sites of references to abortion. Lauf’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

And that trend may be in large part because Democrats, like Foster, are hopeful the overturning of the Supreme Court precedent protecting abortion rights — Roe v. Wade — will help them at the polls.

“We know that if [Republican] Kevin McCarthy gets the gavel, he’s going to make it impossible for women to seek an abortion,” said Matt Corridoni, midwest press secretary for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “And we also know that he’s going to raise taxes on the middle class. That’s what’s at stake in these elections.”

Republican plans, if they get a U.S. House majority

In a plan released by House Republicans in recent weeks, minority leader McCarthy outlined the stakes even further. Dubbed “Commitment to America,” it frames the GOP’s priorities if they take control of the House next year under four categories: the economy, safety, individual freedom and government accountability.

That plan also states that Republicans would, “protect the lives of unborn children and their mothers.”

Having a majority would also give Republicans investigative authority. In that vein, government accountability, McCarthy said, would include “rigorous oversight,” hearings on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, along with the Department of Justice’s investigation into Trump.

“With Republicans in control, I think we’re going to see just interminable re-litigation of the 2020 election, we’re going to see interminable investigations of every aspect of President Biden’s family … I think that will be a much less productive future and a lot more gridlock,” Foster said.

Gryder, Underwood’s Republican opponent in the 14th, said having a stronger check on the executive branch is important, but he focused largely on what’s become another GOP talking point this election season: “reckless spending” in Washington D.C.

“A Democratic-led house, I think is more of the same — they’ve shown over and over that they just want to spend, spend, spend, and we don’t need more of that,” Gryder said. “The latest thing being the student loan forgiveness … These different bills that have come through, they’re not helping the people here in the 14th.”

Gryder is referring to the Republican-criticized plan from the Biden Administration to cancel up to $20,000 in student loan debt for certain federal aid borrowers. The plan will cost $400 billion over the next 30 years.

Underwood declined to be interviewed.

Changed boundaries’ implications

Illinois’ 11th and 14th districts look different this election. The boundaries of both districts have been shifted as part of the redistricting process that occurs after each census. That process in Illinois was led by Democrats since they maintain a majority in the state House and Senate and the governor is a Democrat.

The new 11th district stretches from its original western suburbs of Bolingbrook, Naperville and Aurora into new northwest territory of McHenry, Boone, DeKalb and Kane counties. The new 14th sits below it —– connected by Aurora and then extending southwest along I-80 into LaSalle County. It also includes DeKalb.

While the 11th and 14th may be seen by state GOP party leadership as a failsafe in their pursuit of the five seats needed to flip the House, these particular House races may turn out to be inconsequential in that larger context. And with a couple dozen other seats at play nationally, Republicans might not need Illinois’ 11th and 14th to gain a majority in the House.

“The problem for Republicans in Illinois is how gerrymandered these districts are. And Democrats took a little bit away from Bill Foster to help Lauren Underwood, but both districts voted for Joe Biden by a comfortable margin in 2020,” Wasserman said. “These are not the seats that Republicans are banking on to win the majority.”

Mariah Woelfel covers Chicago city government at WBEZ. You can follow her at @MariahWoelfel.

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