DOWNERS GROVE, Ill. (AP) — On primary Election Day in 2006, Margaret Prowell went to the polling place down the road from her new suburban Chicago home and asked for a Democratic ballot. The election judges were taken aback.
This was Illinois’ 6th Congressional District, a place represented for three decades by Rep. Henry Hyde, one of Congress’ Republican lions, and home to Wheaton College, the Rev. Billy Graham’s alma mater. No one had bothered to take the Democratic ballots out of the box.
“They went in the closet and found them,” Prowell recalled.
Republican Rep. Peter Roskam was elected to succeed Hyde that year, and easily won his next five bids. But in a midterm election where disapproval of President Donald Trump has Democrats competing even in some nontraditional battlegrounds, Roskam is suddenly among the most endangered House Republicans this fall — and his long right-leaning record in a safe GOP district may be his toughest opponent.
Roskam, who faces Democratic business owner and scientist Sean Casten, is trying to navigate between his past positions and appealing to an electorate that supported Hillary Clinton over Trump by 7 percentage points in 2016.
He’s one of a number of GOP incumbents struggling in districts around cities that are getting younger and more diverse.
Thus, he’s gone hiking in the woods with students from a college environmental group and visited a local mosque, posting photos of each stop on his Facebook page. The posts don’t mention Roskam’s 7 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters or that he supported Trump’s ban on travel to the U.S. from predominantly Muslim countries.
Casten and other critics have accused him of trying to gloss over his record.
“How do you deal with somebody whose ethics are situational?” the first-time candidate said.
Lawrence Benito, director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, accused Roskam of trying to pander to immigrant voters in an election year and cautioned: “We have long memories.”
Roskam insists he is a moderate who has been quick to criticize the administration when necessary.
He points to his criticism of Trump’s tariffs, which hurt businesses in the district west and northwest of Chicago, and his vocal opposition to the president capping the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the U.S. next year at a record-low 30,000.
“I think the criticism is really from partisans who want to run against a caricature,” Roskam said. “They don’t want to run against a real person.”
Democrats are targeting dozens of Republican seats across the U.S. as they try to pick up the 23 they need to win control of the House. Many of those are districts where incumbents chose not to run again or seats that have flipped between Republican and Democratic control over the past decade.
Far less common are seats like Roskam’s, where the GOP has had a hold for more than 40 years.
Roskam is touting his role as an architect of the GOP tax bill, which he says will bring $1 billion in tax relief to the upper-income district, and he’s blasted “Shady Sean Casten” in ads, saying he wants to raise taxes on residents but took tax breaks for himself and a company he owned that recycled waste energy.
He also says Casten has “embraced the politics of ridicule.” Earlier this year, Casten was captured on audio saying Trump and Osama bin Laden “have a tremendous amount in common.”
“He criticizes Donald Trump — and there’s a lot to criticize of Donald Trump — but he’s emulating the style,” Roskam said.
Chuck Smith, a 67-year-old retiree, said Roskam’s record on taxes is one reason he’s a longtime supporter. He says high taxes, particularly property taxes, are keeping people like his daughter and two grandchildren from moving to DuPage County.
“Peter has always been one who’s always been focused on what he can do to help people be able to stay in DuPage County,” Smith said.
Democrats are investing in the district in a way they haven’t since 2006, when Roskam defeated now-Sen. Tammy Duckworth, and they’ve become increasingly optimistic.
They point to Roskam’s strong opposition to abortion and votes to repeal the Affordable Care Act, issues they say are motivating the large number of college-educated women in the district.
The suburbs that make up the district also are home to a growing immigrant and refugee population, and supporters who are turned off by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. World Relief, a Christian nonprofit, has worked with churches in the Wheaton area to resettle thousands of refugees.
But Casten said the biggest shift hasn’t come from within the district, but in Washington.
“Yes, the district has moved a little bit to the left, but I think the Republican Party has sprinted to the right, and Trump made that manifest in ways that you could ignore it before but you can’t anymore,” he said.
The political arm of the Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights has a team in the district registering voters. Last week NARAL, an abortion-rights organization, brought dozens of supporters to knock on doors.
Among them was Prowell, who sent election judges searching for a Democratic ballot in 2006 after moving from the liberal suburb of Oak Park, bordering Chicago.
The 67-year-old retired mail carrier supports abortion rights, was married to an immigrant who now owns his own business, and has a gay daughter. She wants to ensure Democrats take over the House so there will be a check on Trump, and was happy to vote early for Casten.
“There’s never really been a choice,” she said.
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