As U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam rallied die-hard Republicans in a private room at the Wheaton Bowl’s banquet hall on Wednesday, Ed Raab was outside keeping watch over the check-in counter, the clatter of pins echoing across the lanes.
“If I wasn’t working,” Raab said, “I’d be right in there with them.”
Roskam shook a few hands, and chatted with campaign volunteers, local precinct committeemen and DuPage County candidates before he strode to the podium for a short speech.
“I’m incredibly energized by this campaign,” Roskam said. “I’m incredibly heartened by all of your support. … Now is the time for us to press forward.”
Behind him, next to stacks of yard signs, was a lifesize cardboard cutout of President Donald Trump flashing a thumbs-up. Someone had placed a red “Make America Great Again” cap atop the cardboard Trump’s head.
As the cutout peeked over Roskam’s shoulder in the DuPage County bowling alley, so does Trump loom over the midterm elections nationwide. The president’s presence may be especially profound in crucial swing races such as the suburban 6th Congressional District, where Roskam is trying to hold off a strong challenge from Democrat Sean Casten, a Downers Grove businessman and political newcomer.
To win, Roskam likely needs to strike a balance between keeping Trump supporters on board, but also preventing independent and centrist Republican voters from abandoning him even if they don’t like the president.
“The people in this district, I don’t think they’d do that,” said Raab, who credited the biggest take-home pay he’s ever had in 42 years working at the bowling alley to the Republican tax overhaul Roskam championed. “I think they’re pretty true to the people they’re backing.”
In 2016, Roskam won a sixth term by more than 18 points in this historically Republican suburban district. Another winner in the 6th District two years ago: Hillary Clinton. She defeated Trump by 7 percentage points, helping give Democrats the motivation they needed to pour significant money, volunteers and hope into a campaign to defeat Roskam for the first time since he won the seat.
“The reason the national Democratic Party believes that Congressman Roskam’s district is in play is solely based on President Trump,” said Kirk Dillard, a former DuPage County Republican chairman, state senator and Illinois governor candidate.
Casten has tried to get into a position to capitalize, calling Trump the “worst president of our generation.” He raised twice as much money as Roskam last quarter, his $2.6 million buttressed by millions of dollars in advertising from a group backed by House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi. The latest spots hit Roskam over taxes and health care, saying it’s time he “checked out of Congress.”
The district has become a national battleground, one of several suburban swing districts across the country where Republicans looking to defend House seats are having to thread the needle on Trump. The results of these litmus-test races will play a critical role in deciding which party controls the U.S. House.
From New Jersey to California, some of the tightest races of the midterms will be held in suburban districts that mirror the characteristics of the 6th District — a vastly white population full of college-educated voters and homeowners concerned about property taxes. Another common thread: In the last federal election, voters in these districts sent Republicans to the House but preferred Clinton over Trump.
There are 25 districts with Republican House members that voted for Clinton in 2016, and half of those districts voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, according to Andrew Ballard, an assistant professor of government at American University who studies congressional politics.
“These candidates are trying desperately to distance themselves from the president because they’re not going to win by only banging the drum of the Republican base,” Ballard said. “They need bipartisan support to win.”
In northern Virginia, for instance, Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock is trailing in polls after a 5.5 percentage-point victory two years ago in a district that also voted for Clinton by 10 points. In the New Jersey suburbs outside New York City, Leonard Lance won in 2016 by 11 points while Trump lost by 1.5 percent. Other examples can be found in the Dallas area, where Pete Sessions won in a district Clinton won by 3 points, and between Los Angeles and San Diego, where Darrell Issa hung on for re-election by 1 point in a district Trump lost by 8 points. Issa opted not to run for re-election.
Roskam has safely surfed a blue wave before, defeating future U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth in 2006 to go to Congress for the first time. Democrats picked up 31 seats nationwide that election and swept Pelosi to the speaker’s chair.
“Peter wins close races because he is an exceptionally hard-working candidate, incredibly articulate speaker and has a volunteer base of dedicated individuals second to none,” Dillard said.
Since that election 12 years ago, Democrats have made inroads in Roskam’s home base of DuPage County. President Barack Obama won the county twice, and the prosperous patchwork of suburbs recently has sent two Democratic state lawmakers to Springfield.
Babette Holder, a Republican committeewoman in Wheaton, said the Trump factor matters “a lot” in this race.
“I’ve never seen a midterm like this before,” Holder said. “I think it’ll be a big challenge this time.”
But her hope is that when voters examine the issues, they’ll turn to Roskam, who she said breaks from the party and the president when necessary.
“I am worried,” Holder said, “I’m not going to lie to you and say I’m not worried. It’ll come down to turnout.”
As the #MeToo movement roils national politics, more women across the country are running for Congress as Democrats, and the party is emphasizing Republicans’ health care votes in their bids to take down incumbents.
Case in point: Next door to the 6th District, Republican U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren faces a stronger-than-usual challenge from Democrat Lauren Underwood, a first-time candidate who is a registered nurse who has highlighted her pre-existing heart condition.
Multiple women running in the March Democratic primary to take on Roskam made personal health crises central to their campaigns. Instead, Casten emerged the party’s nominee for the November campaign.
Still, Casten recently has tried to make Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation an issue in the race, attacking Roskam over women’s issues, health care and Trump all in one shot.
Republicans “sent a terrible message that they do not care about credible accusations of sexual assault or respect survivors of sexual trauma who have courageously come forward and deserve to be heard,” Casten said in a statement after Kavanaugh was confirmed. “Our district deserves a representative in Congress who won’t rubber stamp Donald Trump’s agenda or his unqualified pick for the Supreme Court.”
The contentious Kavanaugh confirmation, Ballard said, may hurt Republicans in the midterms, with supporters basking in a victory and opponents motivated to speak out by heading to the polls.
“It’s a lot easier to get people out to vote if they’re pissed off about something,” Ballard said.
Asked whether Kavanaugh’s confirmation helps or hurts him, Roskam said, “I think it’s a wash. I think most people want things to quiet down now.”
Casten also has attempted an act of political jiu-jitsu, trying to use one of Roskam’s points of pride against him. Roskam played a role in writing the Republican income tax overhaul approved last year and said at the time he was going to run on it.
Casten, though, contends the GOP plan will increase the national deficit, and he has seized upon a part of the new tax law that caps state and local income tax deductions to $10,000, an amount that is often far exceeded by homeowners in the relatively wealthy 6th District.
The Trump factor
Those homeowners won’t all vote the same way. Yard signs for Casten are popping up all over the district, including in front of restored, stately old homes in Barrington, ranches in Lake Zurich and brick bungalows in Wheaton, where Republicans have relied on votes for years. Casten’s support extends to the sprawling properties and horse farms along the quiet two-lane county highways in the district’s northern reaches. Indicative of the race’s toss-up nature, it’s common to spot dueling Casten and Roskam signs along the same leafy, quiet suburban streets, including houses right next to each other.
Outside the nearby Canteen Restaurant in Barrington, a 68-year-old voter named Thomas declined to give his last name, saying he feared his Palatine neighbors might vandalize his house or physically assault him. He said he’s voted for Roskam in the past, and has supported many Republicans, including both Bush presidents, but plans to vote for Casten as part of an all-Democratic ballot in November.
“I just think the president is an embarrassment to the country and the world, and that he’s totally inept, incompetent and evil,” he said after breakfast outside the diner.
But the choice isn’t as clear for Connie Lipa, 64, of Barrington, who said she wasn’t too familiar with either congressional candidate and was undecided heading into the campaign’s final weeks. For her, more than Trump, the election was more about local issues such as property taxes, Medicare, pensions, women’s rights and abortion.
“I don’t like (Trump’s) demeanor and style, but some of the things he’s doing seem to be working,” Lipa said as she took a breather from a walk in downtown Barrington. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. … I don’t feel like these people want to work together any more.”
Roskam is trying to harness some distaste for Trump’s message and turn Democrats’ strategy on its head. He has used Casten’s previous comments that Trump and Osama bin Laden “have a tremendous amount in common” to suggest Casten is a Democratic version of Trump in terms of temperament. Roskam is betting that less-partisan voters will be turned off by the Democrat’s tone and that a steady campaign that focuses on issues, especially the strength of the economy, will win the day.
Roskam has criticized Casten for advocating the “politics of ridicule,” calling some of Casten’s comments and campaign criticisms “off-putting and jarring.”
“Casten’s approach of ridicule is very off-putting, and more and more people are focused on a hostility in the public square,” Roskam said.
“The irony is: Sean, who is Donald Trump’s biggest critic, is ironically emulating him insofar as he’s advocating the politics of ridicule,” Roskam said during a meeting of the Daily Herald Editorial Board. “And the proof of that is calling Republicans a party of deplorables. He’s retweeted that. He’s called Republican donors morons.”
Ballard, the American University professor, noted this tactic as Roskam’s way of trying to tie Casten to Trump to his benefit.
“The less the president speaks, the better for the Republicans,” Ballard said. “Less Trump in the news is better for Pete Roskam.”
Casten said he’s apologized for the bin Laden comment but attacked Roskam for not being more critical of Trump.
“If Peter doesn’t appreciate my sense of humor or is offended by me, I’m sorry,” Casten said. “But we have a big problem with silent complicity in the overwhelming majority of the Republican House right now. We are facing an existential crisis to democracy. We have a president who believes that he is above the rule of law.”
And even in a district that has voted Republican consistently in the past, Casten has attacked Roskam’s anti-abortion stance, his immigration views and his work on last year’s tax bill as reasons why voters will turn his way this fall.
“Peter hasn’t done a town hall since before Obama was elected. And one has to conclude that he knows that his views are out of sync with the public,” Casten said at a voter event in Crystal Lake last month. “ … If you can campaign on your record, if you can defend your record, and you’re proud of your principles, this stuff is fun.”
At the bowling alley on Wednesday, Raab said Roskam isn’t perfect, but he’s still preferable to the alternative.
“He’s done some things I don’t agree with, but I like him a lot better than his opponent,” Raab said.
Roskam comes to the race facing his first serious challenge in a dozen years and with a congressional career that once included talk of an eventual House speakership. He says he’s dealt with a similar race before, when he defeated Duckworth in 2006 despite her personal story, an unpopular Iraq War and then-President George W. Bush’s unpopularity.