Something happened in Chicago’s suburbs in 2018: Two reliably red congressional districts turned blue.
Now, those two Democrats, Rep. Sean Casten (6th) and Rep. Lauren Underwood (14th), are fighting to hold on to their seats in the middle of a global pandemic and economic recession. They are facing challenges from Republicans Jeanne Ives and Jim Oberweis, respectively.
The outcome of these congressional races — and many others in suburban districts across the country — will determine who controls Congress in 2021. Collectively, these four candidates have raked almost $20 million in contributions this election cycle, cash that has heavily favored the incumbents.
“It’s not clear if the pandemic is going to mobilize more Democrats or more Republicans,” said Scot Schraufnagel, a political science professor at Northern Illinois University.
All four candidates have had to adjust their campaigns throughout the spring and summer as COVID-19 forced people to stay home and social distance.
“I don’t know what we would have done without technology, to be honest,” said Stephanie Certain Matz, a Casten volunteer who has lived in Hawthorne Woods for the past three decades. She said there was a big campaign kick-off event called Camp Casten scheduled for mid-March that got canceled when the pandemic first hit.
Everything has been online ever since. Casten, who is a scientist and entrepreneur by trade, said he does not want to put his volunteers or staff at risk and is following public health guidelines.
If elected to a second term, he says his top priorities are the pandemic, climate change, racial justice and growing the economy. Like many Democrats running for office right now, he’s also anti-Trump.
“I think people would like to go a week without having to wake up to see another meltdown,” Casten said.
His challenger, Ives, became an Illinois household name in 2018 when she ran against then-incumbent Gov. Bruce Rauner and nearly unseated him during the primary. She is socially conservative and focused on reopening the economy, reducing federal debt and government overreach. She’s in favor of keeping the Trump tax cuts permanent.
“I think people are tired and very much aware of the overspending that goes on at the federal government,” Ives said.
Ives said her campaign is knocking on doors again and talking to voters face-to-face, but still at a distance. She has also been incredibly active on Facebook, posting almost 200 videos since the pandemic began in March. She’s done virtual town halls, short announcements, campaign ads and even interviews with locals on everything from the economy to public health to virtual school.
The 6th and 14th Congressional districts are both massive areas that span the western and northern suburbs of Chicago. The 6th is closer to the city, while the 14th is farther away and includes rural areas.
“I really detest being called a suburb of Chicago. Okay? I am not Chicago,” said voter Cheryl Ziszik of Wonder Lake, Illinois, which is in the 14th.
Freshman Rep. Lauren Underwood, 14th, won there in a stunning upset in 2018.
“I like her common sense approach,” Ziszik said, adding that she’s already voted for Underwood. “She’s not exactly a businessperson, so I think she can relate more to the humanitarian issues we face today.”
Underwood has a perfect resume for campaigning during a pandemic: She was a nurse before becoming a politician. Similar to her run in 2018, her platform is focused on making health care more affordable, taking action on climate change, preventing gun violence and helping small businesses in her district. Underwood’s biggest first-term achievement is passing a bill the president signed into law that lowered the price of insulin.
Like Casten, Underwood is doing a lot of phone banking, texting and reaching voters over Zoom.
“One of the things we set up over the summer was something called porch parties,” she added. “It’s just me and the host on the porch or in the backyard with a whole Zoom TV setup … so that we could interact with viewers from home.”
Underwood said she doesn’t think virtual campaigning has negatively impacted support.
“Our strongest base of support are the ladies of the 14th,” she said. “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, and their family’s financial situation.”
Underwood’s challenger, Republican Jim Oberweis, is a sitting state senator and the owner of Oberweis Dairy. His campaign platform is focused on border security and limited government spending, and is against the spread of “socialist ideas” like “wealth redistribution” and “job-killing tax plans.”
Oberweis sees Underwood as too progressive for the 14th district, which was actually gerrymandered to be a Republican district after the 2010 census.
“She voted 100% of the time with Nancy Pelosi. That’s representing San Francisco values. That’s not representing the values of the people in our district,” Oberweis said, echoing something Ives also said of Casten. Oberweis is also in-person campaigning, unlike Underwood.
“I’m knocking on doors constantly,” Oberweis said. “I’m out everyday, everywhere. People appreciate that.”
Voter Kristina Pedersen said she hasn’t voted yet, because life is hectic due to the pandemic. She plans to cast a ballot in-person for Oberweis.
“I’m very pro-life. I’m very much a gun advocate so I tend to go Republican,” Pedersen said. But, she said she thinks Underwood will likely win because of how much the district has changed.
The 14th district is mostly white, with an increasing Latino population. The 6th has seen similar demographic shifts.
“Six is known as a wealthy district, and it does have its really well-off pockets,” said Casten volunteer Stephanie Certain Matz. “But we also have many, many communities that are just middle-class. That are teachers, engineers, postal workers, union workers.”
Matz said the outcome of the election will boil down to how well each party can mobilize their base and get voters to cast a ballot. In-person campaigning isn’t the only way to get out the vote.
“A lot of people don’t like to be canvassed, period,” she said, with a laugh. “They get tired of people knocking on their door during the election. So, in some ways, we may have an advantage.”