Why challenges coming at Foster, Casten from the left didn’t work

Despite being victorious in election after election, Democratic U.S. Reps. Bill Foster of Naperville and Sean Casten of Downers Grove both faced primary challenges Tuesday from candidates further to the left on the political spectrum.

Qasim Rashid, Foster’s rival in the 11th District, and Mahnoor Ahmad, one of Casten’s two opponents in the 6th, criticized the incumbents’ stances on health care, campaign financing, foreign policy and other issues. In that last category, Rashid and Ahmad specifically went after the lawmakers’ early support of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza following last fall’s Hamas-led terror attacks.

But the upsets Rashid and Ahmad hoped for didn’t happen. Foster and Casten won by wide margins and now move on to the Nov. 5 general election. Foster will face Republican Jerry Evans of Warrenville, while Casten will take on Republican Niki Conforti of Glen Ellyn.

Rashid’s and Ahmad’s more-progressive messages didn't resonate with enough voters, political experts say — especially when it came to Israel, which was a tent-pole issue for both of them. And neither had enough campaign cash to effectively get those messages out through costly TV advertising and other means.

“You cannot establish that you are viable if you are not visible,” said Kent Redfield, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Illinois Springfield.

Taking on veterans

Foster, a scientist and former entrepreneur, first was elected in the 14th District in 2008 while living in Geneva. After losing the seat in 2010, he moved to Naperville, won the 11th District seat in 2012 and has held it for six terms.

Casten is a former clean energy entrepreneur who claimed the 6th District seat in 2018 and won reelection in 2020 and 2022.

Both legislators’ stances on immigration, health care, climate change, abortion rights and other issues fall squarely within the traditional Democratic platform. Casten is a bit more of a colorful personality than Foster, however; he once rapped about politics during a public event and has referenced pop songs during House speeches.

As for their primary challengers, Ahmad is a health care advocate from Oakbrook Terrace who was a first-time candidate, while Rashid is a human rights lawyer from Naperville who twice ran for office when he lived in Virginia.

Also challenging Casten was Chicagoan Charles Hughes, a Nicor Gas employee who fared poorly when he ran for Congress in 2020 and 2022 and didn’t do well this time, either.

Ahmad and Rashid positioned themselves as more progressive than Foster and Casten on a variety of issues. But they really stood out on Israel.

In forums and interviews and on social media, Ahmad was staunchly critical of Israel and, at times, the U.S. — such as in the November post on X in which she accused both nations of “executing a devastating genocide” in Gaza. Later, in a Daily Herald interview, Ahmad said the roots of October’s terrorist attacks go back to May 1948 — the month Israel was created.

Rashid was critical of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, too, and like Ahmad he supported an immediate, unconditional cease-fire. But unlike Ahmad, Rashid condemned Hamas’ attacks and said Israel had the right to defend itself within the boundaries of international law.

Their stances on the war drew supporters to their social media pages and to candidate forums, where anti-Israel demonstrators — some waving campaign signs — repeatedly disrupted the proceedings and heckled Foster and Casten.

But the issue didn’t sway voters. In both races, the incumbents got 77% of the vote totals, unofficial results show.

“Those that really care about that issue, the majority came down on my side,” Foster said in a post-election interview.

Looking back at the Gaza issue’s place in his race, Casten said people “should never confuse the volume of an argument with the number of people behind it.”

Neither Rashid nor Ahmad responded to interview requests for this story.

  Candidate Qasim Rashid is greeted by supporters in Naperville after the polls closed on Election Day. Rashid lost to incumbent Bill Foster in the Democratic primary for Illinois’ 11th Congressional District seat. Joe Lewnard/

Redfield said making the war in Gaza a central campaign issue and taking a strong stance “looks like a clear case of not reading the room,” particularly against two incumbents who could stress progressive votes on reproductive rights and point to records of constituent service.

Melissa Mouritsen, a political science professor at College of DuPage, agreed. Foreign policy typically isn’t an issue that drives American voters unless the U.S. is at war, she said.

“They are thinking about things much closer to home — food, gas, inflation, mortgage rates,” Mouritsen said.

Ahmad and Rashid shared views on issues other than the war, of course. For example, both called for a single, government-run health care plan — something Casten and Foster oppose. But that stance didn’t move voters much, either.

“Suburban, middle-class voters would like to pay less for health care, but they generally like their doctors, are in employer health care plans and don’t like the idea of bureaucratic, impersonal, government health care or a radical shift to single payer,” Redfield said.

‘You have to have money’

Regardless of the issues, Rashid and Ahmad were not as well-funded as the incumbents.

In the 6th District, Casten had raised nearly $1.7 million as of late February and spent about $812,713 on advertising, staffing, polling and other campaign expenses, according to Federal Election Commission reports. In contrast, Ahmad raised $57,547 and spent about $16,547.

In the 11th District, Foster also had raised about $1.7 million by late February, and he spent about $805,130, records show. Rashid raised about $865,695 and spent about $772,469.

Redfield said the challengers’ comparative lack of funding prevented them from really spreading their messages. Their separate pledges to refuse donations from corporate political action committees and other special interest groups didn’t improve their campaigns’ financial health.

“You have to get money from someone in order to get past the visibility threshold,” Redfield said. “Otherwise, no one knows you are running, let alone what you stand for. You just become social media noise.”

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