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Jim Oberweis Is Trying to Dog-Whistle His Way Into Congress Again

The state senator and dairy scion is following in the footsteps of other conservatives by making a bogeyman of The Squad.

Photo: Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune

State Sen. Jim Oberweis, the dairy magnate tossing his hat into the congressional race next year, wants us to believe that his prospective opponent, Rep. Lauren Underwood, is part of “The Squad.” That would be the group of young, progressive congresswomen of color who’ve made waves in their freshman terms: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley.

Last week, the Oberweis campaign touted a poll conducted by the Republican polling firm McLaughlin & Associates that claims he’s trailing Underwood by only nine points. (Politico’s Shia Kapos subsequently highlighted a number of discrepancies in the poll.) The accompanying statement reads: “With the proper resources, Jim Oberweis can unseat Lauren Underwood and win back a Congressional seat that should not be occupied by a progressive liberal who is in lock-step with the radical left and shares the same extreme agenda as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar.”

The Squad has become a popular bogeyman for Republicans to wave in front of voters. Donald Trump tweeted that “Representatives Omar and Tlaib” — the two Muslim members — “are the face of the Democrat Party, and they HATE Israel!” Such is the right’s animosity towards the congresswomen that Dan Bishop successfully used a similar tactic as Oberweis in this month’s special congressional election in North Carolina, associating his opponent with The Squad.

In reality, Lauren Underwood has very little in common with the quartet. Rather, her freshman crew is the “Big Six,” a group who serve as liaisons to House leadership and attend Democratic Party strategy meetings. Politico describes them as “the over-achievers in the bunch, the group most likely to climb into leadership one day.” Unlike The Squad, Underwood doesn’t do a lot of D.C. press conferences and still lacks their headline-grabbing recognition (though her kelly green overcoat has inspired its own modestly-followed Twitter account, @LaurenCoat).

When Underwood ran for Congress, her “number-one issue” was health care, which was important to her not only as a nurse but as a woman with supraventricular tachycardia, a heart condition that would have made obtaining insurance difficult without the Affordable Care Act. Underwood decided to run after her Republican predecessor, Randy Hultgren, voted to repeal and replace Obamacare.

True to her campaign promise, as a congresswoman, Underwood been all about health care. Her first bill was to cancel a Trump administration rule allowing individuals to purchase inexpensive Short Term Limited Duration Insurance — so-called “junk plans” which do not include drug benefits or coverage for pre-existing conditions — for up to a year. (Obama limited the duration to 90 days.) More recently, she introduced the Health Care Affordability Act, which would cap health care premiums at 8.5 percent of a family’s income. Both bills passed the House but have gone nowhere in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Perhaps the biggest difference between her and The Squad is that the latter represent urban constituencies — from Detroit, Minneapolis, Boston, and New York City — while Underwood is solidly suburban. In Washington, her roommate is Katie Hill, a fellow Big Six congresswoman from suburban L.A. Earlier this year, when I interviewed Underwood at a coffee shop in Grayslake, she tried to talk me into moving to Naperville, which is a terrifying idea for a devoted city-dweller. Underwood did seem a little star-struck about having met Ocasio-Cortez, but, as a 32-year-old with no previous experience in politics, she seemed star-struck about being in Congress at all.

“Never did I imagine that’s where I would work, and that I would be a congresswoman,” said Underwood, who interned for Sen. Barack Obama when she was in college. “During my inauguration, I cried.”

Meanwhile, Oberweis has lost so many bids for statewide and national office that the late Sun-Times columnist Steve Neal once called him “The Milk Dud.” Serial failures aside, it’s still easy to understand why Oberweis is grasping at straws to link Underwood to The Squad: Conservatism, in many circles, is about protecting the power of in-groups. Nothing violates that worldview more egregiously than women of color — a double out-group — exercising power.

Attempting to link Underwood to The Squad is not just consistent with modern Republicanism, it’s consistent with Oberweis-ism. In 2004, when he was losing a race for the U.S. Senate, he filmed himself flying over Soldier Field in a helicopter to dramatize illegal immigration.

“Illegal aliens are coming here to take American workers’ jobs, drive down wages, and take advantage of government benefits such as free health care, and you pay,” he said. “How many? Ten thousand illegal aliens a day. Enough to fill Soldier Field every single week.”

Sure, Underwood may have a hard time holding on to her swing seat — last year, she only beat incumbent Hultgren by a five-point margin. But if she loses in 2020, it won’t be to Oberweis and his dog whistles. 

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