Veteran U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin won another term in Tuesday’s election, defeating Republican Mark Curran, Chicago businessman Willie Wilson and two other challengers.
National Democrats had counted on Durbin, the senior senator from the state, to win easily as the party sought to capture a majority in the Senate. And with 85% of precincts reporting, Durbin had 52% of the vote to Curran’s 41%. Wilson got 4%.
But two bellwether U.S. House races in the Chicago suburbs were too close to call. Both national parties are watching closely to see if Democratic U.S. Reps. Lauren Underwood and Sean Casten win reelection in traditional Republican strongholds outside Chicago.
Underwood and Casten were two major figures in the “blue wave” that gave the Democrats a House majority two years ago. Casten led narrowly, but Underwood trailed Republican Jim Oberweis.
Illinois’ longest-serving federal elected official
Durbin — who will turn 75 later this month — has been a senator for 24 years. Before winning election to the Senate in 1996, he was a member of the U.S. House for 14 years, making him the longest-serving member of the Illinois congressional delegation.
“I hope we’ll have a new president and a lot of good work to do together,” Durbin told WBEZ on Monday evening.
Durbin said he was confident the Democrats could take over control of the Senate but “it may take a little longer” to determine that because of unusually high turnout and the great volume of mail-in votes due to the coronavirus pandemic.
He also serves as the Senate Democrats’ Whip, which means Durbin ranks second among the chamber’s minority party members, behind only Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York.
Speaking shortly after the polls closed in Illinois, Durbin also said he wanted John Lausch to continue as the top federal prosecutor in northern Illinois. Lausch’s office has led an ongoing, sweeping investigation that has targeted the state’s largest utility company, Commonwealth Edison and is threatening to ensnare top Springfield Democrats.
“We know that he has a major investigation underway involving ComEd and others,” Durbin said. “I don’t know where it stands at this moment,” Durbin said. “It is likely that it was suspended because it got too close to the election. But that has to be resolved…I want him to finish his work, whatever it may be.”
Durbin said Schumer told him he expected the Democrats to gain between two and eight Senate seats. The Democrats need to flip four seats to become the majority in the chamber.
Durbin was one of the loudest voices opposing President Donald Trump’s nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, who was confirmed as a U.S. Supreme Court justice recently, to fill the vacancy created when Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died.
The Republican challenger, Curran, was the sheriff of north suburban Lake County from 2006 until 2018, when he narrowly lost his bid for a fourth term in the general election.
Curran was a Democrat but switched parties and became a Republican in 2008.
Before winning this year’s GOP Senate primary, Curran, 57, had been best known for jailing himself for a week — to highlight how well his department had treated inmates at what he called “the finest jail in the nation.”
Wilson, 72, ran as the candidate of the newly created, eponymous “Willie Wilson Party.” After making his fortune with fast-food franchises and a medical-supply company, Wilson failed in bids for mayor of Chicago and U.S. president in recent years.
Also on the ballot were Libertarian Danny Malouf and Green Party candidate David Black.
Riding 2018’s ‘blue wave’ to Congress
In the 14th Illinois Congressional District, Lauren Underwood was swept into office two years ago on the national “blue wave” that keyed on discontent with Trump.
Now, the sprawling district that covers parts of seven counties west of Chicago is shaping into a crucial suburban bellwether. The district leans conservative, but has become a congressional battleground since Underwood’s stunning upset of four-term Republican incumbent Randy Hultgren in 2018.
Underwood, 34, is being challenged by Oberweis, a state senator from Sugar Grove.
With 85% of precincts reporting, Oberweis led by less than 3,000 votes out of more than 346,000 ballots that have been counted — a difference of six-tenths of a percentage point.
Despite the deficit, Underwood ended the night with an optimistic speech to supporters tuning in to her virtual watch party.
“We’re still waiting for results and yet I know we’re winning,” she said. “You know why? Because people are voting in unprecedented numbers and, when our democracy is strong, we all win.”
Obeweis’ campaign manager, Travis Akin, said he too was optimistic of winning, but that the results may not be known for a few days because mail-in and early-vote ballots continue to be counted.
Previously a nurse, Underwood is a staunch supporter of the Affordable Care Act and is best known for her work passing the Lower Insulin Costs Now Act, which lowered the cost of the diabetes medication.
Her campaign focused on highlighting the need for a comprehensive and common-sense approach to combating the pandemic. It painted her as a bipartisan legislator, touting her record of getting four pieces of legislation signed into law by President Trump.
Underwood in an interview with WBEZ last month said she was counting on the support of women in her district, whose priorities she said matches hers.
“Our strongest base of support are the ladies of the 14th,” Underwood said. “And they care about health care, they care about the safety of their families, they’re very worried about COVID-19 and how that impacts their family’s health and well-being.”
Oberweis, 74, has served in the Illinois General Assembly since 2013, representing the state’s 25th Senate District. In addition to his many runs for office as a conservative, free-market candidate, Oberweis is best known as chairman of his family business, Oberweis Dairy.
His campaign platform focused on border security and limited government spending, and he has railed against the spread of “socialist ideas” such as “wealth redistribution” and “job-killing tax plans.”
Oberweis contended Underwood is too progressive for the district and votes with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi too often.
In an interview with WBEZ, Oberweis did not shy away from aligning himself with President Trump, saying he’d fight to keep Trump’s 2017 tax cuts that have largely benefitted U.S. corporations. And he said he’s in favor of the president’s immigration policies, though he criticized the president’s “tough talk” on the subject.
In the month leading up the election, Oberweis’ campaign focused on criticizing Underwood for a comment she made in a Chicago Sun-Times editorial board interview, when she said recent civil unrest has led to “beautiful protests.” Oberweis came out with a television ad claiming Underwood was referring to the looting and rioting seen in cities across the country, though the Sun-Times has debunked that interpretation.
Oberweis has said he opposed the $1,200 stimulus checks that the federal government sent to taxpayers to help weather the economic fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. But Oberweis Dairy, which has dozens of ice cream shops in the Chicago area, received a forgivable federal loan of about $6 million, thanks to a loophole in Washington’s pandemic-relief program.
Another red district that flipped blue
Freshman U.S. Rep. Sean Casten, 48, was another Democrat who rode 2018’s blue wave into office in a suburban district. He unseated Republican Peter Roskam on what long had been solidly GOP turf.
Now, Casten faces a strong general-election challenge in the 6th Illinois Congressional District from Republican Jeanne Ives, 56, who lost narrowly in her 2018 GOP primary run against then-Gov. Bruce Rauner.
With 93% of precincts reporting, Casten had 50% to Ives’ 48.2%. The Libertarian candidate, Bill Redpath, got the other 1.8%.
“This has been a weird night at the end of a weird term of Congress,” Casten said just before 11 p.m. Tuesday. “We are waiting for the final results. We are very optimistic about where everything is looking right now.”
Casten, who was an energy entrepreneur, raked in more than $5.2 million in contributions to try to secure a second term representing many of Chicago’s western and northwestern suburbs. Ives managed to raise nearly $2.9 million in an effort to return the district to the GOP.
In Washington, Casten has focused on efforts to combat climate change, including reducing greenhouse gas emissions and incentivizing businesses to be more energy efficient. He’s also advocated for lowering prescription drug prices and strengthening the Affordable Care Act.
When the pandemic began, Casten suspended all in-person events and has kept most of his campaign online. Like many Democrats, he’s been highly critical of Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
In a recent interview with WBEZ, Casten said he believes the president and the current Republican party does not speak to the values of the 6th district, which he characterized as “pro-science” and “anti-Trump.” Casten is also endorsed by a former chair of the Illinois Republican Party, Pat Brady.
Ives, a former Illinois state representative, ran on conservative stances on social issues, including abortion and gay marriage, all of which were a cornerstone of her campaign for governor. She made national headlines in 2018 for a controversial campaign ad that both Republicans and Democrats denounced as racist, sexist, transphobic and anti-immigrant.
In this run for Congress, Ives is also focused on helping small businesses recover from the pandemic, reducing federal debt and making President Donald Trump’s tax cuts permanent.
Becky Vevea covers politics for WBEZ. Mariah Woelfel is a general assignment reporter at WBEZ. Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter at WBEZ. Follow them @beckyvevea, @mariahwoelfel and @danmihalopoulos.