Underwood pledges a pro-woman agenda and a fight in Congress
As Naperville's Lauren Underwood approached the lectern Tuesday night to make her victory speech in the hotly contested 14th Congressional District, she looked into the crowd of Democratic supporters, shook her head with wide eyes and mouthed, "What?!"
She wore the expression of an athlete who had just hit the game-winning shot but almost couldn't believe it went in.
And yet, just like in her primary victory in the spring, early returns on election night gave Underwood a lead, and she never looked back. Underwood defeated incumbent Randy Hultgren of Plano in six of the district's seven counties. In a district both parties acknowledge was drawn expressly to be a GOP stronghold, only McHenry County, by fewer than 2,000 ballots, supported a fifth term for Hultgren.
Underwood took nearly 63 percent of the vote in Hultgren's original home county -- DuPage, where she grew up -- and about 51 percent in Hultgren's new home county -- Kendall.
Neither the moment nor the history escaped Underwood in her victory speech. She drew inspiration from both the Bible and the "Unbought and Unbossed" motto created by Shirley Chisholm, America's first black congresswoman.
"I aspire to be a bold representative," Underwood declared. "You stood up, and you declared this community deserves better. We stood up to say health care is a human right. We deserve a tax code that benefits all our families. Our communities should not have to live in fear of gun violence."
During a news conference Wednesday, Underwood drew from her childhood heroes of Oprah Winfrey and former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun to explain her perspective on what many thought was an unlikely victory.
"To me, those were the two most powerful black women in the world," Underwood said. "It made me feel I could do whatever I wanted to do. People like to talk about our community as very red, so conservative. I think we completely turned that on its head."
The numbers suggest that's at least partly true. Hultgren's vote total Tuesday was about 28,000 less than the average number of votes he received during the previous four cycles. Underwood believes she pulled some of that number over to her side by having a locally focused ground team in every county, not ignoring even the most conservative corners and trying to speak to issues in a nonpartisan, or at least bipartisan, fashion.
Key to that, she said, was reaching out to young and especially female voters in expectation of what some have dubbed a "pink wave" of female candidates. That means going to Washington with an agenda to work on universal background checks for firearm purchases, paid family leave and creating affordable child care for working families.
Underwood said she believes female lawmakers from both parties are ready to move on those issues after what she called the "failure of male congressional leadership" to act.
"Women have been mobilized in a very specific, concrete way to engage in our country this election," she said.
She also believes she tapped into a dormant pool of Democrats who had not previously been motivated to vote in midterm elections or understood the opportunity to change Congress in a nonpresidential election.
"If you look at the numbers, in every county we saw a major increase in turnout," Underwood said.
By the end of the Wednesday event, the surprise of Tuesday's win transformed into enthusiasm to get to Washington.
"Two years is such a long time," she said of the upcoming term. "We'll have to fight. We aren't going to just coast. I really feel like we changed our country."