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Voters offered a clear contrast in race between U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood and state Sen. Jim Oberweis

Chicago Tribune logo Chicago Tribune 10/21/2020 By Patrick M. O'Connell, Chicago Tribune
a group of people posing for the camera: With her ballot in hand, Rep. Lauren Underwood heads in to vote at the Naperville Library on Oct. 5, 2020. Sporting a bright pink coat instead of her iconic kelly green one, Underwood and a dozen or so supporters and staffers placed their ballots in a secure ballot box inside the library's front door. © Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS With her ballot in hand, Rep. Lauren Underwood heads in to vote at the Naperville Library on Oct. 5, 2020. Sporting a bright pink coat instead of her iconic kelly green one, Underwood and a dozen or so supporters and staffers placed their ballots in a secure ballot box inside the library's front door.

Wearing an “Oberweis for Congress” mask, the Republican candidate for the 14th Congressional District Jim Oberweis sat in a corner booth at his restaurant in west suburban Geneva, talking about the coronavirus pandemic, government waste and jobs.

a car parked in a parking lot: Supporters arrive to the Kane County Fairgrounds in St. Charles as Rep. Lauren Underwood campaigns during a drive-in rally Oct. 19, 2020. © Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Supporters arrive to the Kane County Fairgrounds in St. Charles as Rep. Lauren Underwood campaigns during a drive-in rally Oct. 19, 2020.

As he spoke about the need for less government regulation, his puzzlement over how wearing masks has become politicized and President Donald Trump, patrons munched on wood-fired pizza and gulped milkshakes behind him. Half of the restaurant’s tables were closed to promote social distancing.

a sign at night: U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood speaks to supporters as seen on giant monitor during a drive-in campaign rally Oct. 19, 2020, at the Kane County Fairgrounds in St. Charles. © Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood speaks to supporters as seen on giant monitor during a drive-in campaign rally Oct. 19, 2020, at the Kane County Fairgrounds in St. Charles.

One man lingered, then told Oberweis that he and others he knew were backing the Republican. Oberweis smiled and rose from his seat, giving the man a fist-bump.

“Good luck, Jim!” another man called out.

Despite the good vibes in his restaurant, Oberweis is running in a tightly split district that was reliably Republican until Rep. Lauren Underwood flipped it for Democrats two years ago.

Oberweis, a dairy magnate from Sugar Grove, has run unsuccessfully for Illinois governor, U.S. senator and U.S. representative, while winning a bid for the state Senate in 2012.

a car parked in a parking lot: Rep. Lauren Underwood campaigns during a drive-in rally Oct. 19, 2020, at the Kane County Fairgrounds. © Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Rep. Lauren Underwood campaigns during a drive-in rally Oct. 19, 2020, at the Kane County Fairgrounds.

As the youngest Black women to join the U.S. House, Underwood quickly became a rising star in Democratic circles. The former nurse and health policy adviser during the Barack Obama administration also is well positioned as Americans focus on the coronavirus pandemic.

The two candidates agree on one point: each believes their opponent is out of step with voters in the district that sprawls from Lake County west into DeKalb County and south to Interstate 80. The district, which favored President Donald Trump by 3.9% in 2016, is a mix of dense suburbs, new subdivisions, small towns and farmland.

“I think that the choice between the two of us is very clear for voters,” Underwood said in an interview. “My opponent spends a lot of time attacking me and distorting my record, but not a lot of time talking about legislation. I think that says a lot about his campaign. I mean, he doesn’t have a positive agenda to share with voters.”

a couple of people that are talking to each other: Rep. Lauren Underwood greets supporters during a drive-in rally Oct. 19, 2020, at the Kane County Fairgrounds. © Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Rep. Lauren Underwood greets supporters during a drive-in rally Oct. 19, 2020, at the Kane County Fairgrounds.

“It is a clear contrast and choice,” Underwood said. “We are completely different.”

Oberweis is pinning his hopes on his conservative bona fides: a push for lower taxes, less regulation and a resistance to efforts to defund law enforcement. He has been outspoken on immigration issues in the past and he backs both a southern border wall and the use of technology to thwart illegal immigration.

Underwood, he says, is not a match for the district’s constituents.

“Oh my gosh, she’s way too far to the left,” Oberweis said of Underwood. “She pretends she’s this nice, moderate Democrat who is bipartisan. Nothing could be further from the truth. She’s voted with Nancy Pelosi 100% of the time. She represents Nancy Pelosi, not the district.”

a store front at day: U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood speaks to supporters during a drive-in campaign rally Oct. 19, 2020, at the Kane County Fairgrounds in St. Charles. © Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood speaks to supporters during a drive-in campaign rally Oct. 19, 2020, at the Kane County Fairgrounds in St. Charles.

Underwood says it’s Oberweis who is the district’s outlier.

“He’s completely out of touch with our community’s values on issues that are the most important issues in our election: COVID-19 and health care, lowering health care costs. We have not heard an articulation of a plan forward or a point of view that keeps are families safe and healthy," Underwood said.

In a telling sign of the state of the campaign, Underwood was endorsed by the Illinois Farm Bureau’s political action committee in an event featuring a Minooka pumpkin farmer. It’s a key backing since agricultural groups have traditionally supported Republican candidates, and two years ago backed Underwood’s opponent, incumbent Randy Hultgren.

text: U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood speaks to supporters during a drive-in campaign rally Oct. 19, 2020, at the Kane County Fairgrounds in St. Charles. © Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS U.S. Rep. Lauren Underwood speaks to supporters during a drive-in campaign rally Oct. 19, 2020, at the Kane County Fairgrounds in St. Charles.

The rookie congresswoman, 40 years younger than her opponent, is also bolstered by a well-stocked campaign fund, allowing her to flood the airwaves and social media will advertising as early voters flock to the polls. Underwood upset Republican Hultgren in 2018, delivering the once reliable GOP territory to the Democrats and helping her party take control of the House during the midterms.

Underwood raised $1.8 million in the third quarter, her campaign reported. She began July with nearly $3.2 million, spent $2.7 million through September and began October with $2.3 million for the final stretch run. Underwood’s campaign has received numerous donations from West Coast tech sector moguls, as well as local money from Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and Chicago Cubs co-owner Laura Ricketts.

a couple of people standing next to a person in a suit and tie: Rep. Lauren Underwood and Rep. Sean Casten speak before a news conference Aug. 18, 2020, outside the Ken Christy Post Office in Aurora. © Stacey Wescott / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Rep. Lauren Underwood and Rep. Sean Casten speak before a news conference Aug. 18, 2020, outside the Ken Christy Post Office in Aurora.

Underwood last week also released a new television ad today highlighting her legislation, the Lower Insulin Costs Now Act, which Trump signed into law at the end of 2019.

a group of people standing on top of a car: Rep. Lauren Underwood greets supporters during drive-in rally Oct. 19, 2020, at the Kane County Fairgrounds. © Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune/Chicago Tribune/TNS Rep. Lauren Underwood greets supporters during drive-in rally Oct. 19, 2020, at the Kane County Fairgrounds.

Oberweis reported having $875,841 on hand to start the month after giving his campaign a $600,000 loan. Overall, Oberweis has given his congressional campaign $1.7 million, federal records show. Unlike two years ago, when money from the national parties poured into both 14th District campaigns, Republicans this time around have mostly steered their money elsewhere.

Oberweis shrugged when asked about the lack of money coming from national Republicans.

“We’d always like more support,” he said, theorizing that either people thought he could self-fund his campaign or that the money wasn’t likely to swing the race one way or the other.

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In 2018, Underwood won with 52% of the vote. Republicans continue to hold considerable sway throughout the 14th District, with many state, county and local positions held by GOP members. The 14th takes on added importance this year because Illinois stands to lose at least one congressional district in the aftermath of the 2020 census. If Underwood holds on to her seat, the Democratically-controlled state legislature will be able to draw new districts with her in mind.

Congressional reapportionment is done after the census results are released. The redistricting process will take place next year.

As health officials warn of the continued dangers of coronavirus, Underwood said the federal government should have been much better prepared for COVID-19.

“The truth is, it didn’t have to be this bad,” Underwood said. “This has been a remarkable failure of leadership from the White House. At the end of the day, we need to get control of this deadly virus with an aggressive national strategy, including robust COVID testing, contact tracing and treatment for patients as we work to develop a vaccine.”

The congresswoman took her criticism a step further, saying that Republican leaders have not only mishandled the response to the pandemic, but “spread misinformation" about the virus, its severity and best practices for how the public should respond.

“That’s so disturbing and inappropriate,” she said.

Trump, she said, “is not a trusted source of information on health care matters.”

Oberweis gives Trump a “B” grade on his handling of the pandemic, crediting the White House for “realizing it early” and banning flights from China. But Oberweis said he is puzzled by the hesitation by some to wear masks, which he says are key to reducing transmission and slowing the spread of the virus.

The different campaign styles of the candidates during the pandemic have showcased the differences over how the two parties are approaching COVID-19.

Oberweis has been active in the field throughout the campaign, holding a series of in-person campaign events on weekends. This past weekend, he also visited several police stations throughout the district in an effort, he said, “to tell them ‘thank you’ for what they do to keep our businesses and lives safe.”

“I 100% support someone’s right to protest or demonstrate if they see something wrong,” said Oberweis, who has criticized Underwood’s reaction to recent social unrest around the country. “I’ve done it myself. ... I would also would agree that there have been some very serious mistakes that have been made by a few police officers. And where they are making mistakes, they need to be held responsible for those.

“But to therefore jump from there to saying we should defund our police departments and that a large number of our men and women in blue are bad people is just absolutely ridiculous.”

Underwood has mostly held her meetings online or in small, socially distant gatherings in supporters' backyards. She calls them “porch parties.” She touts her record on health care matters, including a bill that reduces the cost of insulin that was signed into law by the president, and said she remains focused on making health care more affordable and accessible.

While Oberweis is still campaigning in person, going door-to-door throughout the district, he said he always wears a mask and steps back from the door after someone answers. Most people, he said, are understanding and appreciative, although he has encountered one person who was so angry at the mask they asked him to remove it.

Oberweis said he believes the decision to open schools should be made at the local level and that it is important for them to do so as soon as it is safe because of the benefits to in-person education for students and the detriments of online-only learning on children’s social growth and mental well-being.

Oberweis also said he has been encouraging voters to cast their ballots through the mail if they are hesitant to vote in person. He said he has no concerns about the security or validity of mail-in voting (except, he said, in Cook County).

Oberweis is trying to elevate his message on fighting government waste and corruption, highlighting his work in Springfield on budget issues, streamlining his staff and office space to save taxpayer dollars and focusing on “growing and creating more jobs.”

Underwood, he said, " has never been in the private sector, has never created a job."

With a new batch of early voting sites opening across the district this week, voters will soon decide whose vision for the future aligns more closely with their preferences.

“We’ll find out,” Oberweis said when asked how he was doing, “in about two weeks.”

poconnell@chicagotribune.com

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