Rep. Lauren Underwood, a freshman Democrat, has defeated Republican challenger Jim Oberweis to win a second term in Illinois' 14th Congressional District, NBC News projects.
"I am honored to be reelected to represent Illinois' beautiful 14th District in Congress. This was a tough race under some very difficult circumstances, and I want to say thank you to my supporters, the voters, and our elections officials for their diligent work," Underwood said in a statement Thursday.
"We face urgent challenges as a community and a country," she continued. "I remain focused on getting results: protecting our families, ensuring a robust economic recovery, and lowering the cost of health care. Whether you voted for me or not, I pledge to represent every member of this community. That’s my responsibility, and I take it seriously. It's a privilege to bring northern Illinois voices and values to Washington and I can’t wait to build upon all that we’ve accomplished, together."
The race between Underwood and Oberweis remained too close to call for more than a week after Election Day on Nov. 3, with just a few thousand votes separating the two for days as the counting of mail-in ballots continued in multiple jurisdictions.
Oberweis attempted to claim victory the day after the election as he initially held a slim lead in votes cast in person on Election Day itself. However, as election officials continued to count mail ballots - which sharply increased this year due to the coronavirus pandemic - Underwood took the lead.
Underwood led Oberweis by 4,288 votes as of Thursday evening, earning 200,037 votes to his 195,749 votes with 99% of votes counted, according to NBC News. That equated to a lead of 50.5% of the vote to Oberweis' 49.5%.
Illinois election officials said Thursday that more than 87,000 mail ballots had been returned but not yet counted statewide, while the number of mail ballots not yet returned stood at more than 289,233. Ballots that are postmarked by Election Day on Nov. 3 can legally be counted if they arrive within two weeks, by Nov. 17. The Illinois State Board of Elections also said more than 21,334 provisional ballots had not yet been counted as of Thursday.
Some of those ballots that have not yet been counted are from voters in counties within the 14th District: Lake, McHenry, Kane, Kendall, DeKalb, Will and DuPage counties.
Some of those county election officials reported that they had completed counting of their returned mail ballots by Thursday, according to the Illinois State Board of Elections. While the district encompasses mostly McHenry and Kane counties, Lake County had the largest number of returned but uncounted ballots as of Thursday, standing at nearly 9,316 with more than 30,000 ballots not yet received.
The uncertainty of the number of ballots still out or uncounted, combined with the slim margin separating the two candidates, made it more difficult to make a projection in the race.
Still, Oberweis - an Illinois state senator and perennial candidate who has run for U.S. Senate three times since 2002, governor in 2006 and Congress in 2008 - declared victory on Wednesday, less than 24 hours after polls closed when he had a lead of roughly 1,300 votes.
"It appears that we have won a tough fought campaign," Oberweis said in a video, he posted on Facebook, claiming he "prevailed" and falsely claiming that there were "only a handful" of ballots left to be counted.
Underwood's campaign quickly pushed back on that assertion, disputing his early claim of victory.
“Jim Oberweis doesn’t get to call this election: the voters do,” Underwood spokeswoman Andra Belknap said in a statement. “There are thousands of votes yet to be counted. We appreciate every voter who made their voice heard, and our county clerks and election officials must count every ballot in as expeditious and transparent a manner as is possible. Based on publicly available data, we remain confident that once ballots are counted, this race will reflect that the voters have reelected Congresswoman Lauren Underwood.”
In a video posted to social media last week, Underwood said her campaign believed a majority of the outstanding ballots were in her favor, adding, "I'm feeling confident about the results and I can't wait to celebrate with you soon."
The 14th District race was long seen as likely to be one of the most contentious in Illinois. In 2018, Democrats eyed the district as a potential long shot pick-up in their bid to take back the House. Underwood ousted the longtime Republican incumbent in a stunning upset, winning by 5 points in the highly competitive suburban battleground.
She is the first African American, the first woman and the first Millennial to ever represent the majority-white district. At age 32 when she was sworn in, she also made history by becoming the youngest Black woman to ever serve in the House.
The district was long a Republican stronghold - represented from 1987 to 2007 by Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving GOP Speaker of the House who later served a prison sentence in connection with a hush money scheme to hide his history of sexually abusing young boys.
President Donald Trump won the district by 4 points in 2016, which was down from Mitt Romney’s 10-point margin of victory four years earlier - but a victory nonetheless. With Trump at the top of the ticket this cycle, seven Republicans jumped into the primary race with hopes that the presidential reelection campaign might buoy Republican efforts to win the district back.
Oberweis won the GOP primary in March, a contest in which all the candidates painted themselves as fairly hardline conservatives, with many explicitly hanging their hats on Trump support in an effort to emerge from the GOP primary victorious.
Oberweis is an Illinois state senator from Sugar Grove, in office since 2013. He chairs his family’s Oberweis Dairy business, purchasing it more than 30 years ago after starting a career in finance. He's used his considerable wealth to fund campaigns in the past, and this race was no different.
Underwood is a nurse and health policy expert from Naperville who previously worked on the implementation of the Affordable Care Act under former President Barack Obama, who endorsed her in 2018 and again this cycle – as did Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.
She has a heart condition and centered the message of her first campaign on health care, often saying that she decided to run against her predecessor Rep. Randy Hultgren after he voted for a bill that did not include protections for those with pre-existing conditions. Since taking office, Underwood has continued that focus in her messaging and often touts a bill that she passed and Trump signed into law to help make lower-cost generic insulin available more quickly.
In a large class of freshman Democrats – some with skyrocketing national profiles – Underwood has been noticeably careful to strike a more moderate tone and emphasize a willingness to reach across the aisle to serve her more conservative-leaning district. She did, however, vote to impeach Trump in December 2019, saying he “demonstrated a pattern of corrupt behavior, and abused his power for his own personal political gain.”
While Oberweis earned nearly 40,000 more votes this cycle than Underwood did to win the seat in 2018, high turnout from both political parties in part lifted Underwood to a second term.