How 'phantom' voters could decide 6th District race

The race for the 6th Congressional District seat in November might come down to which party can win over disgruntled voters from the other side of the aisle.

Democratic challenger Sean Casten calls them “phantoms,” people who feel the Republican Party led by President Donald Trump no longer speaks for them, while the Democratic Party has never spoken to them.

Democrats and Republicans each see phantoms on the other side of the spectrum. Republicans who support Rep. Peter Roskam, for example, say there are disgruntled Democrats who back the incumbent for the tax benefits he has brought to the region.

Neither party will admit much need to court dissatisfied voters within its own camp, but such voters — and the candidate they choose — could matter. In a U.S. House race that will factor into the national balance of power, Democratic operatives say they will support Casten, a clean-energy entrepreneur from Downers Grove who advanced from a seven-way primary last month, despite disappointment in some quarters that a woman didn't prevail. Republican leaders say they once again will pull for Roskam, who has held the seat since 2007.

The sides already are trading barbs over taxes and gun control. Differences in the candidates' views are striking. Yet the phantoms lie in the middle.

Dems chose Casten

Casten emerged as the Democrats' choice after narrowly defeating Kelly Mazeski, a plan commissioner and former scientist from Barrington Hills.

In a race with five women and two men, the 46-year-old political newcomer secured roughly 30 percent of the vote to Mazeski's 27 percent.

Too many female candidates split the “women's vote,” dividing the voices of those who wanted to make sure the Democrats nominated a woman, some political observers say.

They have a point.

Roughly 67 percent of voters chose one of the women on the ballot, while 33 percent chose a man.

But there's more to it.

Negative mailers and phone calls, funded by an Evanston-based political action committee run by a Democratic consultant, came out at the last minute against Mazeski.

Casten self-funded his campaign to the tune of $630,000, buying TV exposure the other candidates didn't have.

Emily's List endorsed Mazeski but did so before speaking with all of the women in the race. The organization, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women, may have angered some women's issues voters, said Kelly Dittmar, an assistant professor of political science and a scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University.

Voters could have seen two of the women — Carole Cheney and Amanda Howland — as unable to win because they've run in high-profile races and lost before, said Julie Webber, professor of politics and government at Illinois State University; Cheney lost the party's nomination for the 84th state House District in 2012, and Howland drew 41 percent of the vote but lost to Roskam in the 6th District two years ago.

There also are indications traditionally Republican voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary, and such “crossover votes” may have favored Casten's economic experience, Webber said.

In the end, among highly engaged Democrats, the decision came down to who was the strongest, most well-informed and well-equipped for the long haul, said Reid McCullom with the Coalition for a Better Illinois 6th. For that, voters chose Casten.

“I don't think people voted for Sean because he was a man,” McCullom said. “They voted for the candidates they felt had the strongest grasp of the issues and had the best chance to defeat Peter Roskam.”

Roskam's positives

Roskam skated through the March 20 primary without an opponent, but he admits he's no stranger to close and contested races.

In his first national race in 2006, the Wheaton Republican beat now-U. S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and was severely hurt when the helicopter she was piloting was struck by enemy fire. Roskam said her “injury and sacrifice” made her “a national phenomenon.” He beat her narrowly, 52 percent to 48 percent.

Since then, Roskam has prevailed in five congressional elections, by margins from 16 to 34 percentage points. Those who knew him in his earlier political days, as a state representative and state senator, aren't surprised.

“Peter has grown up through that process,” said Brian Krajewski, chairman of the DuPage County Republican Party. “A lot of people recognize him for work he did locally here.”

Republicans primarily are happy with Roskam for his work shepherding through the new tax law, which enacted lower income-tax rates overall for individuals, increased the standard deduction for couples and doubled the child tax credit, but capped the amount of state and local taxes that can be deducted.

“People are happy that they're receiving more money back on their paychecks,” said Cody Holt, chairman of the Kane County Young Republicans. “That's definitely one of the contributing factors that is putting Peter in the positive with so many voters.”

Ideas competing

Activists expect an expensive and hard-fought race, with mailers galore and plenty of political noise for voters to sort through before Nov. 6.

Roskam said he's energized to campaign on his view of the economy and his reputation as “a consistent, independent voice that reflects the district.”

“Campaigns are the great competition of ideas,” he said on March 21, after finding out Casten will be his opponent. “I find it invigorating and I look forward to it.”

Casten said he won the primary by appealing both to the traditional Democratic base and disaffected Republicans in a five-county suburban area that he described as a “centrist district.” He said he'll continue to run that way as he battles Roskam.

“There's a theory that the demographics of the district are changing,” Casten said. “I think the Republican Party is moving to the right much faster than the demographics of the district are moving to the left.”

Advocates on both sides are filling their campaign playbooks and leveraging support.

Democrats are building enthusiasm through new grass-roots groups aiming to “flip the 6th,” thinking such a change could be possible because voters in 2016 supported Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over Trump by a 7-percentage point margin.

But the district hasn't been represented by a Democrat since 1972. And Republicans are ready to work on Roskam's behalf.

“In Illinois, as Republicans, we have to be concerned about the fact that there are a lot of energized Democratic voters,” Kane Republican Party Chairman Kenneth Shepro said. “Whether I agree or disagree with their philosophy, the fact is many of them are energized, angry and coming out to vote. So we have to recognize that and probably work two or three times harder than we have before.”

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  Democrat Sean Casten of Downers Grove won a seven-way primary in the 6th U.S. Congressional District and now is beginning a general election campaign against six-term incumbent Republican Rep. Peter Roskam. Bev Horne/
It came down to the wire on March 20 in a seven-way Democratic primary for a nomination to seek the 6th U.S. Congressional District seat. But Sean Casten of Downers Grove won with 30 percent of the vote while Kelly Mazeski of Barrington Hills claimed 27 percent.
Among a crowded field of seven candidates seeking the Democratic Party's nomination in the 6th U.S. Congressional District, Sean Casten, top left, won. Some say the five women in the race split the vote among people who wanted the party to choose a female candidate to oppose incumbent Rep. Peter Roskam in November, but political science experts and activists say several other factors intervened to help Casten narrowly top Kelly Mazeski, bottom left, on March 20.
  U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton has represented the 6th District since 2007. Now he's squaring off Nov. 6 against Democratic challenger Sean Casten. Bev Horne/
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