If Lauren Underwood wants to stay in Congress, a friendlier district would help.
Earlier this month, Underwood defeated Jim Oberweis by just 4,688 votes, a margin of 1 percent. Not only is Oberweis the worst candidate in Illinois history, having now lost seven elections for statewide and federal office, but the Republican ticket was topped by the least popular president of modern times, Donald Trump.
The race was so close that Oberweis has yet to concede, and showed up for new member orientation in Washington, D.C. The dairy company owner hasn’t gotten the message that if he were a carton of his own milk, his expiration date would read 11-3-2020.
In the 2022 midterm elections, Underwood will be running as the representative of the party in the White House. That party typically loses seats, especially in swing districts like Underwood’s. (Underwood won her seat in the first place by defeating Republican Randy Hultgren in 2018, when Democrats took over the House by winning suburban voters who were fed up with Trump.)
Underwood is in luck, though. All of the state’s congressional districts will be redrawn before the next election, and the Democratic Illinois legislature will do the drawing. Ten years ago, the Democrats did such an effective job of redistricting that they flipped Illinois’s congressional delegation from 11-8 Republican to 12-6 Democratic in a single election. POLITICO was so impressed with the gerrymander it wrote that House Speaker Michael Madigan had “punched his ticket to the partisan hall of fame.”
In that remap, Underwood’s 14th District was designed as a Republican “vote sink.” The idea was to corral as many Republicans as possible into a single district, so Democrats could be efficiently distributed in neighboring districts. For the first three elections of its existence, the 14th functioned that way. Hultgren won easily, with 58 percent, 65 percent, and 59 percent of the vote. Even Underwood seemed surprised by her victory.
“Never did I imagine that I would be a congresswoman,” she told me when I met her at a cafe in Wauconda early in her term. “During my inauguration, I cried.”
Illinois is set to lose a congressional district in 2022. Given that, will the Democrats be able to protect Underwood? Eric Herman, of the Democratic political consulting group Kivvit, thinks the party should make hanging on to Underwood’s seat a priority.
“Representative Underwood is a star,” Herman said. “She’s a moderate Democrat in a party that needs moderates with star quality. She has professional training in healthcare and is a woman of color who’s proven she can win in a swing district. The party would be nuts not to do everything in its power to help her keep getting re-elected, and my guess is that it will.”
The Chicago suburbs have become much more Democratic in the past 10 years, a big part of why Underwood was able to win in the 14th District. DuPage County, which contains Underwood’s hometown of Naperville, voted Republican in every presidential election from 1856 to 2004. This year, it was Joe Biden’s third-best county in the state, after Cook and Champaign. The Democrats elected a single member to the county board in 2000; they now hold a majority.
But are there enough Democrats in suburbia to draw a favorable district for Underwood, while also protecting the seats of neighboring suburban Democrats Sean Casten, Bill Foster, and Brad Schneider?
Hanah Jubeh, a Democratic strategist with P2 Consulting, predicts the Democrats will eliminate a congressional seat in Southern Illinois, which would allow them to draw a map favoring their Chicago-area incumbents.
“An aggressive gerrymander might be able to eliminate a downstate Republican district while preserving [Democrat] Cheri Bustos’ district in northwestern Illinois and without weakening Lauren Underwood in the Chicago suburbs,” wrote Sean Trende at Real Clear Politics. “One would probably have to ‘baconmander’ Chicago (the term for stretching districts from city cores into rural areas) or perhaps extend Bustos’ district into Springfield.”
But baconmandering wouldn’t be practical for a district as far from Chicago as Underwood’s. Taking a close look at the 14th, which follows Chicago exurbia from the Wisconsin state line down to Kendall County, there seems to be an easy solution. The most Republican corner of the district is in Lake County. Currently, Underwood’s reach spans to the county’s far northern edge, which are more country than suburb. She represents, for instance, Fox Lake, a boating, fishing, hunting, and snowmobiling resort.
This map, from the Lake County Clerk’s website, shows that Oberweis dominated in those communities.
Some of those precincts could be shifted into the 10th District, which extends east to Lake Michigan and south to the North Shore, stopping just shy of Winnetka. Brad Schneider won there with 60 percent of the vote, and seems sufficiently ensconced to absorb a few more Republicans.
To compensate, Underwood’s district could be shifted west to take in DeKalb, home of Northern Illinois University, a college town that voted strongly for Biden. (Republican Rep. Adam Kinzinger, who currently represents DeKalb, would probably appreciate losing it.)
Lauren Underwood represents much of what the Democratic Party is becoming: young, highly educated, a woman of color, suburban. She’s not a member of the House’s new far left (along with fellow Midwestern freshmen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib), but a nurse whose signature issue is health care. In Underwood’s most effective TV ad, “Darcy,” the mother of an 8-year-old diabetic, praised Underwood for passing a bill to lower the cost of insulin, and getting it “signed by President Trump.
She’s also being groomed for leadership as a member of the “Big Six” — freshmen who serve as liaisons to House leadership and attend Democratic Party strategy meetings.
If history serves, there’s a good chance the Democrats will lose the House in 2022. They’d be smart to do whatever they can to avoid losing Lauren Underwood.