Amid a wave of Democratic victories in the 2018 congressional elections, Lauren Underwood's triumph in Illinois's Fourteenth District, outside Chicago, was among the most unlikely. A thirty-two-year-old African-American health-care-policy specialist, Underwood was running in a suburban district that had elected only white men since it was created, in a different shape, in 1873. She beat a four-term Republican just two years after Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton on the same turf. In her victory speech, Underwood borrowed from Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman in Congress, to pledge that she would be "unbought and unbossed."
Her challenge now is to hang on. No fewer than eight Republican candidates have announced bids to unseat her. As one of thirty-one Democrats who hold seats in districts that Trump won, Underwood is being targeted by the Republican National Committee, which sees the attempt to impeach Trump as a winning issue for the President's party. The R.N.C. recently launched a campaign called "Stop the Madness," which is aimed at more than sixty congressional Democrats and has included a protest outside one of Underwood's offices. "This is MAGA country," one sign read. Another said, "Stop Impeachment Derangement." The goal, Mandi Merritt, an R.N.C. spokesperson, said, is to "cause chaos" in these districts, by insuring that "the massive energy we are seeing from people fired up over the impeachment sham is harnessed." Club for Growth, a conservative group, funded a digital ad that falsely suggested that Underwood is "all impeachment, all the time."
In fact, Underwood rarely discusses impeachment, although she voted last month with all but two House Democrats for the inquiry to proceed. She was the second Democrat in districts won by Trump to support the investigation, but only the hundred and twenty-sixth member of Congress as a whole. As she sees it, her surest path to reëlection is taking a firm stand on issues such as health-care costs, veterans' affairs, and gun regulation, and pouring efforts into an earlier-than-ever canvassing operation and the nuts and bolts of constituent work. "Showing up is so huge," she said. That includes appearances in rural communities that are home to corn and soybean growers who have been hurt by the President's tariff policies. "A lot of them still like Donald Trump, but they appreciate having a congresswoman that cares about them and their families, and recognizes that they're getting screwed," Underwood told me. "This trade war with China is devastating. There's no other way to say it."
Underwood, a registered nurse, entered the 2018 race against the Republican incumbent, Randy Hultgren, after working as a policy adviser in the Obama Administration on issues that ranged from the Flint water crisis to the Affordable Care Act. Like many other Democrats, she highlighted the fact that her Republican opponent had voted to repeal the A.C.A., in 2017. Today, she says that she has "many" constituents who voted for Trump and for her. She has raised more money than any of her challengers and has more than a million dollars in the bank. Still, the Cook Political Report rates her 2020 race as a tossup, and the district as R+5, meaning that it would be expected to vote five points more Republican than the national average.
This fall, Underwood's staff and supporters took advantage of the waning good weather to knock on doors, distribute campaign literature, and gather signatures to get her name on the ballot. Her team got an assist from a staff member funded by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee as part of its March Forward project, which aims to defend, and possibly expand, the House majority. I spoke with a volunteer named Kelly Hickey as she knocked on the doors of Democratic voters in an upscale housing development in Naperville. Wearing a jean jacket against the autumn chill, sunglasses atop her head, she described how she first became politically involved. "I was someone who cried in January, 2017," she said. "I started calling Randy Hultgren and saying what I was upset with. Then I decided to do something positive." Once a Hultgren voter, Hickey is now "shocked" that the Republican Party is defending Trump's conduct. She talks with Republicans, but "it feels like I'm tilting at windmills," she said. She was frustrated, too, that Underwood didn't call much earlier for Trump's impeachment, but she believes that Underwood's measured approach suits the purple district. "She's a home-town girl. She's very forthcoming. She's a deep thinker, and we need more of that."
Hickey picked up her canvassing assignment a short drive away, at the headquarters of the Democratic Party of Wheatland Township, a casually furnished storefront office in colorful disarray. Tacked to the walls were posters and precinct maps flecked with yellow sticky notes. On the floor were stacks of yard signs, while an array of political T-shirts was flung over folding partitions. Mimi Cowan, whose day job is working for a state senator, dispatched volunteers and talked about how much more developed the region has become since she was growing up there. She is forty-four, and, as a young woman, she left for busier locales, living in New York and Chicago and earning a Ph.D. in history at Boston College. "It was so fun to be in a world of Democrats, but I don't feel there were a lot of hard battles to be fighting," she said. When she returned to her home district, she found "a lot more Democrats out here than we thought," and some Republicans who felt that their party was moving away from them. She ran for the Will County Board, and won. Underwood, she said, benefitted from being seen as an outsider in the 2018 election. "At the doors last year," Cowan told me, "I heard people say, 'I want something different. Is she an incumbent? No? O.K., I'll vote for her.' " Now Underwood is the incumbent.
On a Saturday morning, I stopped by the city of Batavia, home to the U.S. Department of Energy's Fermilab, its particle accelerators and nearly two thousand employees, along with hotels and guest houses that welcome waves of visiting scientists from around the world. The town sits astride the Fox River and hosts an outdoor farmers' market until the weather stops coöperating. The day I wandered through, shoppers ambled along a pedestrian byway, past a knife sharpener called the Cutting Edge and a juice purveyor with a chalkboard sign that said "Kale is your friend with benefits."
When I caught up with him, Richard Abrahamson was headed to his car, carrying a container of apple-cider doughnuts and some heirloom cherry tomatoes. An interior designer for the one per cent, as he put it, he often declines jobs when he divines that the prospective client is a Republican. He can hardly bear to hear Trump's voice, he told me, citing "his lies and his ego. Those who are following him are not truly listening to what is coming out of his mouth." Abrahamson doesn't live in the district, but he attended an Underwood fund-raiser and admires her for her honesty, her politics, and her "common sense." While acknowledging that he has no patience for Trump supporters, Abrahamson laments the current political maelstrom. "It's, 'I'm right, you're wrong.' It's not, 'Why don't you explain this to me?' People are so afraid to say they are Democrats or Republicans."
The next person I talked to spoke at length about his political views, and then declined to give me his name or number. The man, wearing a ball cap and T-shirt from Midwestern colleges attended by his children, said that he works at a truck dealership, where he doesn't want his co-workers to know his politics. He voted for Trump in 2016, not because he admired Trump but because he could not abide Clinton. These days, he said, "I wish he were more Presidential, but I don't disagree with his policies or his agenda." He explained that he picks and chooses among candidates and does not vote by party. "If there was a better candidate, he would lose my vote now. The Democrats, other than Biden, they're all too far left." He feels torn about Joe Biden, the former Vice-President, whom Trump has accused, without evidence, of using his position to benefit his son Hunter in Ukraine. "This Biden stuff, I think it was a conflict of interest with him and his kid. But Trump is behaving so poorly. Instead of being the President, he's being a buffoon. But he isn't wrong. I'll be surprised if he doesn't win again."
Underwood's prospective Republican opponents include a Naperville investor, a state senator, and the twenty-six-year-old Catalina Lauf, who worked in the Trump Administration's Commerce Department. The best-known contender is Jim Oberweis, a seventy-three-year-old state senator, the patriarch of a wealthy dairy family, and the founder of an investment firm. He is a four-time loser in races for the U.S. Senate and the Illinois governorship. He also lost a bid replace Representative Dennis Hastert, then the House speaker, when the Fourteenth District was configured differently. One rainy night in October, I found Oberweis working the crowd at the Antioch Rotary Club's pork-chop dinner and auction, in a church basement in far northern Illinois, less than five miles from the Wisconsin state line. Dressed casually, in a button-down shirt, he was introducing himself and handing out ice cream and sherbet from his dairy. Speaking on one of his signature issues, immigration, he talked about "floods of people entering this country illegally." He faults an "unholy alliance" of Democrats, who "see illegal aliens as voters for their side," and Republicans, who "view illegal aliens as a source of cheap labor." The U.S. government, he said, should "fine the heck out of businesses" that hire undocumented workers.
As for Trump's record, Oberweis told me that he approves of the 2017 tax law and the push to undo the Affordable Care Act but opposes tariffs, regrets Trump's decision to leave the Paris climate treaty, and dislikes the President's manner of speaking. "I think he's done good things for our country, and not the best things in terms of how he has affected the country's reputation," Oberweis said. Still, he considers himself a Trump supporter and does not criticize the President for asking Volodymyr Zelensky, the President of Ukraine, to investigate the Bidens. "I think it's worthwhile to know whether Joe Biden is corrupt," he said. He has embraced the Republican strategy of running against impeachment. In October, he tweeted, "When will Lauren Underwood and Nancy Pelosi drop the impeachment charade? Americans deserve more transparency and fewer political games." He calls Underwood a #fakemoderate and tweeted, "#Marxism is trending. Yet like anything that is trending it will go away when people realize how useless it is. #capitalism cures."
The week after the Rotary Club event, Underwood arrived early to a town-hall session at the Veterans of Foreign Wars Cantigny Post 367 and took a seat in the front row. She sat alone and no one approached her. There were no television cameras, no protesters, no controversy. Indeed, there was not a single question about impeachment or Trump during the ninety-minute session. The topic of the evening was medical care for military veterans. Underwood spoke, without notes, about the harassment and catcalls some women face when they seek care from the Veterans Administration. She made clear that she had walked the halls of V.A. hospitals, including the Edward Hines, Jr., facility, in Illinois. She described a bill she introduced that aims to improve care for the growing number of female veterans. "What we're looking for is standardization," she said, "and making sure that the exemplary programs that might be happening at Hines and other facilities can be done at scale across the system."
Joliet, where Underwood held the town hall, lies in the Eleventh District, on the turf of Representative Bill Foster, a Democrat and former Fermilab physicist, who joined Underwood to take questions. Foster won a special election to succeed Hastert, in 2008. He later lost to Hultgren, before returning to Congress with a victory in 2012. As the meeting broke up, I spoke with Foster, who once represented parts of Underwood's district. Jobs are on voters' minds, he said, and that includes white-collar constituents, who are worried about technological displacement. He is most often asked about impeachment when he speaks with Democrats, "because they spend their lives on MSNBC. For more general audiences, they just wish the commotion would die down. They're tired of the fight. They may vote against Trump just because they're tired of looking at him on TV."
Foster endorsed the impeachment inquiry in late August, a few days after Underwood. I asked him whether he thought Underwood should talk about impeachment. "If asked, yes," Foster said. "To be clear about the immoral things the President has done, and the necessity to perform oversight as the Constitution requires, and to pursue the facts, and to leave it at that. That is the safe ground nearly everywhere."
That, as it happens, is the tack Underwood is taking. When I asked her what people most want to discuss with her, she answered, "health care, every day. People are concerned about health care because it costs too much. They can't afford it. They can't afford their premiums. They can't afford their deductibles. They can't afford prescription drugs and they're scared to go to the emergency room or get in an ambulance for fear of a surprise medical bill." She is counting on voters to see her through the prism of their own most immediate concerns. She told me, "Some of these Republican opponents of mine are trying to outdo each other to stand next to Donald Trump, to prove that they are the Trumpiest of them all. If that's their strategy to win the primary, go for it. I don't think that's reflective of the community. I don't really think that he is a central character in what happens in the Fourteenth."