6th Congressional District race hard to predict with 'ordinary life on hold'

The general election ballot is set, but there's much still to be known in the race to represent the 6th District in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Republican primary winner Jeanne Ives will challenge Democratic incumbent Sean Casten in the November contest to claim the House seat representing an area from Hinsdale and Naperville through Elgin to just beyond Long Grove.

But the spread of the coronavirus is keeping people in their homes, making early campaigning an unusual challenge. And changes in economic and social behavior caused by the virus mean typically safe bets about elections are off, political scientists say.

"Forecasts of the 2020 election are harder than ever given the unpredictable fallout from the pandemic," said Brian Gaines, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the Department of Political Science and at the Institute of Government and Public Affairs. "With ordinary life on hold for who knows how long, it is hard to guess whether turnout will be nothing like usual, e.g. the usually reliable elderly staying home, and whether incumbents will be enjoying an approval rally or a backlash of frustration that normal life isn't back."

It's amid this backdrop that Casten and Ives will wage their campaigns to represent the 6th District, which had been staunchly Republican from 1972 until Casten took office in 2019.

Casten is a 48-year-old clean energy entrepreneur from Downers Grove who advanced from a field of seven Democratic hopefuls in 2018 to claim his party's nomination and then beat Republican incumbent Peter Roskam in the general election.

In Congress, he has joined the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis and worked on legislation to increase clean energy storage capacity and encourage innovation to decrease carbon emissions.

Casten said he continues to focus on protecting the environment, improving the Affordable Care Act, raising minimum wages, strengthening employment and addressing "massive wealth inequality," all of which he says are priorities for district residents.

Ives, 55, is a three-term former state representative and former Wheaton City Council member who opposed then-Gov. Bruce Rauner in the 2018 Republican gubernatorial primary.

In her political career, she has focused on pension and tax reform as well as government transparency, providing "conservative leadership and an unwavering commitment to the taxpayers' bottom line," according to her campaign website.

Through a spokeswoman, Ives declined to comment for this report.

Political science experts say as many as 80% of voters in the district already could have their minds made up. But the 6th District isn't as easy to peg as it used to be.

Republicans controlled the district for more than four decades, nearly all of it under the leadership of Henry Hyde and Peter Roskam. Hyde held the office from 1975 to 2007 and then Roskam stepped in from 2007 until Casten topped him in 2018 in a bid for what would have been Roskam's seventh term. A coordinated effort to "#flipthe6th" led by the Coalition for a Better Illinois 6th and other progressive groups, helped sweep Roskam out and Casten in.

"The district was clearly once Republican, then with strong incumbents, it stayed Republican," said Scot Scraufnagel, professor in and chairman of the Department of Political Science at Northern Illinois University. "But that has perhaps changed now."

Casten puts it differently. It's not the values or political leanings of the 6th District at large that have shifted, he says. The district consistently has valued "the idea of the free world and defender of the post-World War II order," Casten said, and consistently has believed "we should keep our fiscal house in order" and "government doesn't belong in our bedrooms and bathrooms."

"All of these things used to be pretty mainstream Republican values," Casten said, "and have now been completely abandoned by the Republican Party in the age of (President Donald) Trump."

Trump - or any president, for that matter - can play a role in Congressional elections, Scraufnagel said. That's especially true in times of war or calamity, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.

"In times of crisis, the president's party tends to outperform," Scraufnagel said.

Problem is, Trump is not a typical president.

"We kind of have to throw out the rule book in many instances when it comes to President Trump because he's such an anomalous figure," Scraufnagel said.

Other pages in the political rule book, however, could turn out to benefit either or neither candidate.

Ives counts as what political scientists call a "quality challenger," Scraufnagel said, because of her state legislative experience and her ability to win campaigns. But she also lost to Rauner two years ago, so some voters may remember her most for that failed campaign, he said.

Casten could be at a disadvantage if voters in the 6th District return to their previous Republican ways. Or he could have a leg up with his expertise on the climate crisis and with the public steps he's taken against the coronavirus, such as hosting a roundtable with two other members of Congress and Edward-Elmhurst Health leaders in Naperville as the pandemic began to hit home.

"In the fickle American voting public, if he's seen as competent in handling crisis or addressing crisis, then his particular expertise and his committee assignments might work to his advantage," Scraufnagel said.

The general election is Nov. 3.

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