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Both Parties Will Need Exurban Districts If They Want To Win The House Majority


If Republicans want to retake the majority in the House of Representatives or if Democrats want to keep it, they'll need to win exurban districts; places like the Republican-leaning 14th district of Illinois outside Chicago. Democrat Lauren Underwood shocked the political world when she defeated the GOP incumbent there last year. She's the youngest African American woman ever elected to Congress. And she's one of just a very small number of vulnerable Democrats to come out in favor of an impeachment inquiry. NPR's Tim Mak has more from Illinois.

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Look at the district on a map, and it looks like a warped sea, full of jagged lines. It was drawn by Democrats to hold Republican-leaning areas outside of Chicago. Patrick Brady is the former state chair of the Illinois GOP.

PATRICK BRADY: It should be a district that a Republican in a normal year would win by four or five points.

MAK: The result is a district that stretches from farmland...


MAK: ...All the way to the farmers markets of suburban Chicago. Into the scene shot Lauren Underwood, a 32-year-old with a nursing background who launched a long-shot bid to take the seat from a Republican incumbent. Even her supporters were surprised when she won in 2018, like Kristina Zahorik, a local Democratic Party official.

KRISTINA ZAHORIK: I think lightning kind of struck.

MAK: A few days ago, Underwood held a series of town halls in her district. Her constituents grilled her on a variety of issues, including health care, gun control and prescription drugs. Impeachment is a controversial position in her district. Here's former GOP state chair Patrick Brady again.

BRADY: The impeachment message is really, really not a good message in that district.

MAK: Earlier this month, Underwood told Vox why she wasn't supporting impeachment.


LAUREN UNDERWOOD: If I act unilaterally, or what's perceived as unilaterally...

KARA SWISHER: Right, the way your opponent did.

UNDERWOOD: ...And leave my community behind...


UNDERWOOD: Then it looks like a power grab.

MAK: But in a surprise move last week, she announced she backs a, quote, "impeachment inquiry." When asked about it at her town halls, her demeanor changes. Where she had been giving informal answers on other matters, she reads from prepared notes while talking about impeachment.

UNDERWOOD: The American people deserve all the facts and full transparency.

MAK: Underwood declined an interview and then refused to answer questions from NPR about her impeachment position.

UNDERWOOD: I mean, you can ask them. I'm just not going to answer it.

JERRY SHKOLNIK: Even her backers acknowledged that the impeachment process could lead to political jeopardy. A supporter of hers, Jerry Shkolnik, worries that impeachment could cause Underwood problems if it proceeds to a formal vote on Trump's removal.

SHKOLNIK: I'm for the inquiry. I'm not for taking a vote on impeachment. It'll just give him something to run on.

MAK: And here's what Eric Gundersen, a Republican-leaning voter in her district, had to say about impeachment.

ERIC GUNDERSEN: I mean, what grounds, really? I mean, this whole thing with Trump and stuff that's just been going on is just really dumb.

MAK: Both her supporters and opponents say that in this Republican-leaning area she only has a chance at reelection if she strives to represent both the people who voted for her and those who didn't. Every Republican here interviewed for this piece, all who voted against her and oppose her policy stances, said they admired her work ethic and her efforts to learn about their issues. Michael Kenyon is a farmer and Republican who also sits on the Kane County Board, which partially overlaps with Underwood's district. He said he's been impressed with her outreach on agricultural issues.

MICHAEL KENYON: She's making an effort to familiarize herself with something that's completely opposite of where she was, so we appreciate that.

MAK: The outcome of this race in 2020 depends on Underwood's ability to walk a tightrope, navigating her impeachment position and the moderate and center-right constituents that make up the bulk of her district.

Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.