GOP candidates line up to try to reclaim the 14th District from Underwood

  • Democrat Lauren Underwood debates then incumbent 14th Congressional District Republican Randy Hultgren in October 2018. Now eight Republicans are vying to be the one to face and perhaps unseat Underwood in next November's election.

      Democrat Lauren Underwood debates then incumbent 14th Congressional District Republican Randy Hultgren in October 2018. Now eight Republicans are vying to be the one to face and perhaps unseat Underwood in next November's election. Jeff Knox | Staff Photographer October 2018

 
 
Updated 11/23/2019 6:53 PM

In 2018, political upstart Lauren Underwood muscled her way to the front of five other Democrats seeking to unseat a Republican in one of the most closely watched congressional races in the nation.

Now it's her turn: There's a crowd of Republicans jostling for the opportunity to challenge her in the 14th District.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

In a race that's virtually the opposite of Underwood's 2018 primary drive to face entrenched Republican Randy Hultgren, eight Republicans have announced plans to try to unseat Underwood next November after just one term in Congress.

As in 2018, President Donald Trump will loom large in the background. And the GOP field will attempt to piece together a platform true to Republican values but one that, in some way, resonates better with the district than the message Hultgren touted just a year ago.

The 14th congressional district is sure to be among the most competitive of the primary races, as the national GOP considers it a prime candidate to return to the Republican column after suffering a host of losses two years ago.

The district, which wraps around the North and West suburbs from just west of Zion to southwest of Joliet, includes of mix of demographics, from blue-collar farmers to white-collar scientists. Its voters went for Trump by 4 percentage points in 2016. Therein may lie the biggest vulnerability to Underwood's bid to keep the seat.

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The impeachment appears ready to draw out longer toward the March primary season. Trump has already said he's preparing for a full Senate trial.

But to get there, Underwood will be faced with possibly the most difficult vote of her young tenure.

With the support shown for Trump in her own district during the last presidential race, Underwood has navigated a careful line of not outright supporting or rejecting impeachment. Instead, she's told her constituents she supports going wherever the facts lead.

So far, that's still been just enough to enrage hard line conservatives and narrowly appease the most liberal contingent of her support base.

Along the way, Underwood has focused her legislative efforts largely along the lines on which she campaigned.

Five of her bills focused on improvements to veterans' health care. Five other bills focused on health care or prescription affordability, medical research or medical screenings at border crossings. Her other bills focused on increasing state and local tax deductions -- known as SALT -- which had been capped by the federal income tax reform of 2017, as well as lowering higher education costs and increasing access to retirement benefits.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

There are reasons more conservative voters would like to see Underwood replaced.

She voted with her fellow House Democrats in 98.4% of all roll calls, according to a tracker created by ProPublica. She supports the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and the DREAM Act, unrestricted access to abortion services and investment in renewable energy to combat climate change.

Underwood also made a controversial statement during a Homeland Security committee meeting earlier this year: She said the Trump administration is intentionally creating poor conditions at border detention facilities, where multiple children have died.

All of that is red meat for local Republicans who believe the 14th District never would have fallen into Democratic hands if Hultgren had run a more energetic campaign and been more visible in the district during his time in office.

That has drawn GOP contenders who are already fairly well-known, like state Sens. Jim Oberweis of Sugar Grove and Sue Rezin of Morris, and former Kendall County Republican Party Chairman James Marter of Oswego.

There are a host of newcomers positioning themselves as non-politicians, including Jerry Evans of Warrenville, who owns a music school, and Ted Gradel of Naperville, a futures trader and hedge fund investor.

There's a candidate with a platform that leans toward Libertarian values in Danny Malouf of Crystal Lake. There's Anthony Catella of St. Charles, a veteran and former priest. And 26-year-old upstart Catalina Lauf of Woodstock, a Trump appointee to the U.S. Department of Commerce, has gained traction in conservative media circles as the anti-Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

There's also still time for even more candidates to jump into the race and win the hearts, and dollars, of both the local and national GOP. The deadline to file for the primary is Dec. 2.

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