LAKE IN THE HILLS, IL — Rep. Peter Roskam (R-IL) has predicted for months that the GOP tax plan he helped craft would play a major role in his reelection campaign. But with November fast approaching, it’s his opponent who seems more interested in talking about the issue.
Roskam was a key architect of the law as chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee’s Subcommittee on Tax Policy. He helped develop the law’s contours and was one of its most vocal defenders throughout the process, speaking on TV and at press conferences to sell the bill.
But Roskam has yet to air a single ad touting the law he helped craft. And his challenger, businessman Sean Casten (D), is now on the air slamming Roskam for the legislation.
“There’s no disputing Peter Roskam’s link to Donald Trump as the author of Trump’s tax plan that gave $1 trillion in tax breaks to big corporations and the top one percent, adding nearly $2 trillion to the deficit,” Casten’s latest ad intones. “And to pay for all this they want to send the bill to America’s seniors, cutting Social Security and Medicare.”
Roskam pushes back hard on that characterization, arguing that “we are saving a billion dollars a year in this district alone in taxes” because of the law and disputing that many families will pay higher taxes because of the newly lowered cap on deductions in state and local taxes, which are very high in the region.
And he’s happy to talk about the issue in person.
“There is no bigger difference between my opponent and I than on tax policy. And he’s completely embracing a tax hike,” the congressman told TPM during an interview at a Dunkin’ Donuts Saturday night in the northern corner of his district, shortly after a visit to a local Hindu prayer center. “That’s my platform, I’m running on it.”
But rather than litigate the law on TV in Chicago’s expensive media markets, Roskam is using his limited campaign funds to tie Casten to a deeply unpopular local Democratic politician, Illinois House Speaker Mike Madigan, and to paint Casten as too “aggressive” a personality and too liberal for the district. He’s also attacked Casten, a clean energy entrepreneur, over his business record.
But on taxes?
“I am talking about it,” Roskam insisted when TPM asked him why he wasn’t running ads on the tax law. “I’m talking about it to you, I’m talking about it to all the reporters. Earned media and paid media are two different strategies.”
Roskam’s dilemma is emblematic of a pair of widespread crises for House Republicans heading into the election: A dramatic shift against their party in well-educated suburban territory, especially among female voters, and a lack of popular policies on which to campaign.
Public and private polls, including those conducted by the GOP, have consistently shown that more voters oppose the tax law than support it nationwide. And it’s the signature legislative achievement scored by Republicans in the Trump era.
“He doesn’t have any winners. I mean that seriously,” Casten told TPM during a candidate meet-and-greet in St. Charles on Thursday, arguing that every issue helps him, from healthcare to taxes to combatting global warming. “This is a district that is massively hurt by the tax plan. The five highest state and local taxes in Illinois are the five highest counties in this district. This district has the 12th highest state and local tax in the country. The tax bill is a total loser for him.”
Making things worse for the congressman is how unpopular Trump is in the suburbs. Roskam’s district had actually been drawn by Democrats to pack in as many GOP voters as possible in 2010, and he hasn’t faced a serious race since then. But after Mitt Romney won the district by an eight-point margin in 2012, Trump lost it by seven in 2016, a 15-point swing. Things haven’t gotten any better with Trump in the White House.
Roskam is now tied with or trailing Casten, depending on which polls you believe. Casten also almost doubled his fundraising last quarter, hauling in $2.6 million, compared to Roskam’s $1.4 million (though Roskam has more cash left in the bank). National Republican groups privately say they may have to cut him off as they struggle desperately to save their House majority, like they have with a few other suburban Republicans.
But they can only afford to lose so many tough suburban seats and maintain the majority. And if Roskam, a savvy politician and tough campaigner in a district drawn to elect a Republican, is beyond saving, that’s a bad sign for them.
The voters in the district — where the median household income is almost $100,000 and more than half of its residents are college graduates — largely lean left on social issues like gun control and gay rights and right on fiscal ones like taxes and regulations.
As Casten put it earlier this year (in a comment Roskam is now flaying him for), “it’s basically a socially liberal district that has a lot of white people who don’t like to pay taxes.”
That includes people like Mary O’Connor, who now heads We Can Lead Change — Fox Valley, one of thousands of grassroots organizations that have sprung up around the country to oppose Trump. The group hosted Casten and other Democratic candidates for a meet-and-greet Thursday evening in suburban St. Charles.
The middle-aged small business owner was a Republican her whole life. She even flew to Cleveland in 2004 to help get out the vote for President George W. Bush. She couldn’t stand Donald Trump but couldn’t bring herself to back Hillary Clinton either, so she voted for Gary Johnson for president in 2016. But when she woke up the morning after the election, she was aghast at the results.
“I put my feet on the ground the day after Trump was elected… and just said ‘no, no, no,'” she told TPM.
Casten’s own campaign chairwoman, Anne Wick, said she “popped a bottle of champagne” when Bush was declared president over Al Gore, but gradually moved away from the GOP over a variety of issues in recent years. A number of the few dozen other attendees at the female-heavy event said Trump had driven them to politocal activism for thet first time in their lives.
Roskam is careful about how he talks about the president, who he referred to as “a mercurial figure” in an interview with TPM. He pointed out that he broke with Trump over separating child refugees from their parents at the U.S.-Mexico border and opposed GOP politicians proposals to cut funding for the state children’s health insurance program. His first ad of the campaign highlighted his fight against GOP efforts to undermine the Americans with Disabilities Act.
With voters in his district unhappy with the leader of his party, Roskam is looking to play jiu jitsu on the anti-Trump rage, painting Casten as the angry man in the race. He’s been quick to criticize Casten for his personality and views, arguing that local voters don’t want someone as partisan as him in office.
“My opponent has really embraced the politics of ridicule. He’s fallen into this trap of Republican name-calling,” Roskam charged in his interview with TPM.
Casten does have some rough edges. He has made some inflammatory remarks that Roskam’s campaign is now highlighting in a digital ad of women reading “mean tweets.”
National Democrats had hoped one of a number of women running for the seat would win the primary for the race, but they split the vote and Casten emerged in March.
But Roskam isn’t exactly a soft-spoken bipartisan darling either.
After winning his seat in 2006, he quickly rose up the GOP leadership ranks, topping out as chief deputy whip before losing a bid for majority whip to Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) in 2014. While early in his career he had a more moderate voting record, he has grown more partisan over the years — he was among the most conservative members in the Almanac of American Politics’ 2015 vote ratings. And he played prominent roles in two highly polarizing Obama-era investigations, leading the charge to accuse the Internal Revenue Service of politically motivated crackdowns against conservative groups and serving on the House Benghazi Committee.
As the congressman points out, he faced a similarly tough election when he first ran in 2006. He still pulled off a narrow win against Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War helicopter pilot who lost her legs in an attack and had huge financial support from the national party (she’s now the state’s junior senator).
“I’m glad my first experience was that ’06 cycle,” he said. “It has that same feel to it: Larger than life, national. But there’s an underlying structure of local themes.”
In three weeks, he’ll find out whether local issues are enough — or whether he’ll drown in a blue wave.