Underwood maintains brisk pace as she challenges Hultgren for Congress

By Jack McCarthy, Chronicle Media

Lauren Underwood, the 14th District Democratic candidate for Congress, chats with supporters at a recent picnic in Geneva. (Photo by Jack McCarthy / Chronicle Media)

There’s no such thing as the dog days of summer for Lauren Underwood.

With Election Day less than 12 weeks away, the 14th District Democratic candidate for Congress maintains a brisk schedule with meetings, voter contacts, fundraising and social events and even the occasional parade.

Underwood can’t afford anything less than a full sprint in what’s perceived as an uphill race against four-term Republican incumbent Randy Hultgren.

“Healthcare’s at stake, our great public schools are at stake, the safety and security of our kids are at stake in this election,” she told Kane County Democrats at a recent picnic. “We saw what happened in 2016 when we thought that someone else was going to step up.”

The 31-year-old registered nurse and healthcare analyst from Naperville decided decided she would step up, motivated in part by Hultgren’s votes to eliminate the Affordable Care Act and her own experiences with a pre-existing heart condition.

“We have a Congressman who hasn’t shown up and had our backs,” she said. “Boy, do I know what he’s been doing — these votes to take away our healthcare, votes to raise our taxes, votes to weaken our public schools, in the pocket of the gun lobby. We can do better.”

Underwood, an African-American woman running in an overwhelmingly white district, won 57.3 percent of the vote to easily top a seven-candidate Democratic primary field last March and earn the one-on-one showdown with Hultgren.

The district is still seen as GOP friendly. President Donald Trump won it by four points over Democrat Hillary Clinton in 2016. Hultgren, meanwhile, had a nearly 19-point win in his reelection bid in a district that covers portions of Lake, McHenry, Kane, DeKalb, Kendall, DuPage and Will counties.

Analysts recently rated the 14th anywhere between slightly to solidly Republican.

“How do we know we win?” asked Underwood. “We are getting supported by people in this community, they are literally buying in. They’re investing in our race. Randy Hultgren is being supported by these companies and their PACs (political action committees) … whose interests he seems more interested in responding to than (to) the people in this community.

“There is extreme dissatisfaction with his performance.”

Republicans currently control the House of Representatives by 43 seats and a flip of less than two dozen could shift control.

National Democrats look to candidates like Underwood to close that gap.

It’s hard to tell that Underwood is a first-time candidate. She speaks confidently and directly but also has an easy manner and disarmingly bright smile when addressing audiences and in one-on-one situations.

JB Pritzker, the Democratic candidate for Illinois governor, called her a rising star.

“She’s so impressive that they summoned her to Washington D.C. for Emily’s List (a fundraising group supporting progressive women) and everybody was lining up to meet her,” he told Kane County party faithful. “They know she’s going to be a leader on behalf of progressive Democratic values that we all believe in.”

National attention and notable endorsements are also helping draw attention.

The New York Times featured Underwood in a front-page article last month, while Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin recently issued an endorsement and former President Barack Obama lent heavyweight backing last week.

“I had the opportunity to work with President Obama on healthcare issues, culminating in an appointment as a senior advisor at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service,” Underwood said in a statement. “This work was deeply personal to me as a registered nurse and a woman with a pre-existing condition.”

On other issues, she supports comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship; addressing gun violence through universal background checks and closing loopholes that allow criminals and the mentally ill to purchase weapons; supports access to abortion and a full range of reproductive health services; and backs a series of clean energy proposals and federal regulation to combat climate change.

According to Federal Election Commission reports through March 31, Hultgren had a significant financial advantage. But since them, Underwood said she out-raised him in the most recent quarter that ended in June.

“It doesn’t start with fundraising, but it certainly is a major component of something like this,” she said. “I’ve out-raised Randy Hultgren for two consecutive quarters.”

In recent weeks, Underwood has crisscrossed the district with stops ranging from Wauconda and Crystal Lake to Yorkville and Oswego and points in between. Her supporters are handling door-to-door contacts while Underwood is making efficient use of her time.

“I do house parties,” she said. “So we can have 30 to 50 people in someone’s home and do a dialogue. That was something that was fairly unique in our primary. It allowed us to connect with people. It’s sort of a lower stakes way for folks who are not Democrats or aligned with party to learn about our campaign and be around their friends and neighbors.”

While she may be African-American, Underwood says she’s also strongly rooted in the region.

“I’m from this community,” she said. “This is the community that taught me how to be a black woman. This is where I grew up, went to high school (Neuqua Valley), all of my first major firsts. … So the idea that somehow I wouldn’t be a good fit for this community is something that I don’t give a lot of consideration to. This is my home.”

As summer turns to fall and Election Day nears, many voters will start to tune into politics. But Underwood maintains that a sense of urgency is already here, applying not just to her campaign, but the entire Democratic ticket.

“There’s no more time for slacking,” she said. “Now is the time where we dig deep and we dig in and we do the work. We make all of the calls on our sheet, we hit all of the doors in our walk packet and we connect with every single Democrat, every single independent and, yes, moderate Republicans in this community.”