Oberweis vs. Underwood: Ideology, health care, immigration to lead in nationally watched congressional race
While every other congressional candidate in Illinois who survived the March 17 primary spent most of the days immediately following gearing up for the main event in November, Jim Oberweis found himself still awaiting an important nod of recognition from his own party.
There was no word from the National Republican Congressional Committee, even after his GOP rivals in the 14th Congressional District conceded. Nothing on the following Wednesday as all his other fellow Republicans received public congratulations from NRCC Chairman Tom Emmer. Still nothing on Thursday, two full days after the election.
The rumors began to simmer. The candidate played them down.
"We know there are some people who don't like Jim who are saying the NRCC just doesn't like Jim Oberweis," said Travis Akin, a spokesman for the Oberweis campaign. "That's not true. They have an internal policy that they are waiting for The Associated Press to call the race. But because of that, we are basically in a holding pattern."
The AP finally on the following Friday decided Oberweis, of Sugar Grove, won, and the statement from Emmer recognizing Oberweis arrived.
"Congratulations to Jim Oberweis on his primary victory," Emmer said. "Lauren Underwood is a die-hard member of the socialist Democrat majority in Congress who votes with AOC 96% of the time and Nancy Pelosi 100% of the time. Illinois voters will reject Lauren Underwood's socialist agenda in November, and Republicans will take back this seat."
Underwood, of Naperville, was already at work painting her picture of the contest. In recent weeks, while Republicans in their primary battled over immigration, Social Security and the Second Amendment, Underwood peppered her constituents with health care messages and pending legislation she was working on.
Now this formerly reliable Republican district will be among the most watched -- and well-funded -- races in the nation.
In 2018, Underwood rode a wave of concern that Republicans would repeal the Affordable Care Act, and protections for preexisting conditions with it, all the way to an upset victory against multi-term GOP incumbent Randy Hultgren. The capper was two pieces of legislation President Donald Trump signed into law. One lowered the price of insulin by making generic insulin available sooner. The other law created new standards for medical screenings for people crossing the border.
And, right after the primary, she hosted a virtual town hall to speak directly to her constituents about COVID-19 and their concerns, then followed it up with an appearance on WTTW Channel 11's "Chicago Tonight" for a similar discussion.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee was already taking full swings against Oberweis. If Underwood's actions didn't make it clear enough, the DCCC put forward health care as the main policy issue in the race.
"Illinoisans are going to have nauseating déjà vu as they watch Oberweis run another general election campaign on his long record of opposing legislation that cut prescription drug costs for Medicare recipients and pushing for full repeal of our health care system," the statement said.
Oberweis did say he would support a repeal of the Affordable Care Act during the campaign. He also opposes a Medicare for All system "since it eliminates our ability to choose the type of plan we wish to have and the doctors we wish to visit."
Oberweis made it clear in announcing his plan to go against Underwood that his views on limiting immigration, now made popular by Trump, will be a center point of his campaign.
He has already advocated mandatory use of E-Verify, the construction of a southern border wall, the end of birthright citizenship and the hiring of more border patrol agents.
For now, Akin said the focus of the campaign will be uniting the Republican Party for the coming fight.
"This was a very heated race," Akin said. "Jim was under fire much of the campaign. We are reaching out to the local party people and trying to put this behind us. He wants their help. We have to rally as a party to beat Lauren Underwood."
Both candidates will have to see their parties rally behind them to raise enough money to win. The COVID-19 outbreak will eliminate many of the traditional grip-and-grins, dinner parties and visits by the stars of the two political parties typically used as the main avenues for campaign fundraising.
That said, some projections estimate it will take upward of $15 million to capture a winning number of votes.
Underwood raised just under $5 million for her first campaign. Oberweis, including his statewide contest against Sen. Dick Durbin, has never raised more than $3 million.
The sprawling 14th Congressional District includes parts of DuPage, Kane, Lake, McHenry and Will counties.