On a crisp Saturday morning in April, the village of Glen Ellyn, Illinois, was remarkably still and empty, with the exception of the First United Methodist Church, which was bustling with over 600 people. Most came from Glen Ellyn and neighboring villages, but a few camera crews from Chicago lined the side aisles of the church. The day’s main event was a Town Hall for Our Lives held by local high school students, inspired by the March For Our Lives movement following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. The star of the show was Sean Casten, the Democratic candidate for congress in Illinois’s Sixth Congressional District (IL-06).
On a map, Illinois’s Sixth Congressional District, located around 30 miles northeast of Chicago, resembles a backward question mark. In recent presidential elections, the sixth has been a swing district. In 2016, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in the district by seven percentage points. In 2012, Mitt Romney bested then-incumbent President Barack Obama by eight percent of the vote, and in 2008 Obama beat John McCain by a narrower three percentage points. On the congressional ballot, however, the IL-06 seat has been held by Republican Congressman Peter Roskam since 2006. This November, all 435 seats in the US House of Representative are up for election. Democrats across the country are hoping for a “blue wave” of wins as a result of opposition to President Trump’s presidency, and are targeting seats historically held by Republicans, and many people who have never worked in politics are running for office for the first time. Democratic organizers are optimistic that districts like the sixth, in which Clinton bested Trump, will be able to be flipped. The last time a Democrat represented the district was 1972, but Casten hopes to change that.
At 46, Sean Casten’s trim dark hair is only beginning to grey. He wore a blue button-down a shade lighter than his eyes, with a white undershirt peeking out from underneath and topped with a black blazer. The outfit that appears to be his go-to campaign uniform. He wore almost the same look in an ad released just before the Democratic primary, when he beat out six other candidates for the party nomination. He is more of a scientist than a politician, with a BA in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry, and two Masters in Engineering Management and Biochemical Engineering. Before entering the race he was President and CEO of Recycled Energy Development, which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He has deep technical knowledge, and a somewhat reserved nature not typical of what you normally see in politicians.
The interior of First United Methodist Church is bright and spacious, with row after row of pews and an upper balcony for overflow, all of which were filled for the town hall. A giant cross hangs behind the stage, framed by two gold and white banners, one with another cross sewn onto it, and the other proclaiming “he has risen.” Roskam was nowhere to be seen at the town hall, despite an invitation from the student-organizers. Casten perched on a chair in the middle of the stage, flanked by five students, two wearing short-sleeved neon orange shirts, the color associated with national gun violence awareness efforts. One of the students had decorated his orange shirt with black Sharpie recording the locations of past shootings, with Columbine underlined.
While the student organizers introduced themselves Casten sat with his legs spread wide, hands clasped in between them. As the students read questions collected from the audience he shifted in his seat before responding, grasping the microphone in his right hand as he gestured with his left. He answered the first few questions focusing intently on the students who read them, but by the end of the event he faced the crowd directly, more relaxed and leaning back in his chair. Casten’s talking points on gun control were what one would expect of a Democrat, supportive of comprehensive gun law reform. His efforts to relate to voters as a businessman and scientist seemed to be working, and the friendly audience only appeared frustrated when he flubbed a Hamilton quote.
Despite the event’s emphasis on students, the crowd was largely comprised of older voters. When one of the students on stage asked the students in attendance to stand, only around a dozen people got up from the pews. The organizers were clearly frustrated, and several of them beseeched the audience to encourage more young people to get involved. Like over 85 percent of the residents of IL-06, the majority of the people at the program were white. A surprisingly large number of the older women in the pews, a type known by younger residents as GEMs, or “Glen Ellyn Moms,” had the same bobbed haircut, and it seemed that half of the 30-somethings in the audience wore Pod Save America merchandise. Casten said he had hoped to see more students at the event, but wasn’t surprised by the make up of the crowd. “There were a lot of people here who were really fired up after the Democratic primary,” he said, noting that “demographically, Democratic primary voters tend to be older women.”
Casten was not the obvious front runner in the primary. Of the seven candidates running for the nomination, five were female. One of his challengers, Kelly Mazeski, received some big endorsements early, from EMILY’s List, the Chicago Sun Times, and a number of Congresswomen from around the state. Mazeski led Casten for most of the race, but on March 20th, Casten won with 29.9 percent of the vote, 3.4 percentage points over Mazeski. Anne Wick, Casten’s Campaign Chairwoman, knew it would be a “very tough battle” for whoever ended up facing Roskam, the incumbent, later this year. “Looking at the 2016 results, as far as I could tell the only female who won in the district was Clinton, and she won because Republicans didn’t vote at the top of the ticket,” Wick said. According to Wick, Peter Roskam typically wins by 18 points in presidential years and 30 plus points in non-presidential years.” Wick believes that Casten was able to win the primary by appealing to voters from both parties, and that this will help him in the general election. She argues that his past work as a clean energy entrepreneur can appeal to both environmentalists on the left and business people on the left. “He’s for common sense reforms and he can talk tax policy as a businessman. The Republicans I know in this district, don’t trust the government with their money, their tax dollars. I think Sean can calm them down.”
Casten’s campaign website highlights this background and his past environmental work. He joins the ranks of hundreds of non-traditional candidates who have gotten involved in politics in the past year, including an uptick in women, veterans, and doctors and scientists who hope they have what it takes to get elected in the wake of Trump’s win. Wick says that based on their polling, “health care was number one and climate change was number two” in terms of issues that IL-06 Democrats care about. Following the primary, Casten hopes to continue to improve his efforts to appeal to young voters, and has participated in various walk outs and spoken to multiple classrooms during the course of his campaigning. “To be totally wonky, nobody polls young voters because they tend not to vote,” Casten said after the town hall. “The honest to goodness truth is people don't really know [the most important issues to young voters] because they don't get heard.” He is hopeful that this will change. “I truly, truly hope that this is the cycle where a whole lot of young people show up and vote, and all of a sudden there's a bunch of people who aren't employed saying, ‘Huh. I probably should've asked them what mattered to them.’"
Both in person and in his campaign ads, Casten is quick to stress the differences between himself and Roskam, who he ties to Trump. Roskam is a member of the Ways & Means Committee, previously served as Chief Deputy Minority Whip, and once ran for Majority Whip. While Casten is a climate activist, Roskam has called climate change “junk science.” According to FiveThirtyEight, Roskam has voted in line with Trump’s position 94.3 percent of the time. “The times that he has deviated from Trump, it was things like he voted against hurricane relief aid to Houston after Harvey,” argued Wick, “It’s not like he took the high ground or anything.”
Particularly frustrating to many voters in the district is the fact that Roskam has not held a public town hall in almost a decade. Casten joked that on the tenth anniversary of Roskam’s last town hall, “We gotta make plans, we’ll have a barbeque somewhere.” Jeromel Lara, a high school junior and one of the organizers of the event, was quick to emphasize that both Casten and Roskam were invited to the Town Hall for Our Lives, but Roskam’s staff said he couldn’t make it. “How come he hasn’t held town halls?” Lara asked. “What have you done to truly reach out to your own constituents?” When the students reported that Roskam had been invited but did not attend the town hall, the audience made their frustration heard. “Don’t boo, vote!” said Lara, quoting Obama’s speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention.
It has not been a friendly race between the two candidates. “They’ve already established a negative Facebook page, a website... Sean just plans to fight back with the truth, with Peter Roskam’s voting record, to show constituents he’s not really working for you anymore,” said Wick. The website produced by the Roskam for Congress Committee is ironically named “The Real Sean Casten,” and features a grainy photo of Casten and claims like “the real Sean Casten is needed by Nancy Pelosi so she can spend more of your money.” Wick is hopeful that by drawing attention to Roskam’s record, Casten can appeal to “moderate Republicans who don’t have a home now with the Republican party, which has gone too far to the right—we want to get the center ground.”
Casten doesn’t shy away from antagonizing his opponent. “There is so much angst in the district,” Casten said, “There's this pressure kind of waiting to blow.” He hopes to have the opportunity to debate Roskam head on, but is unsure whether Roskam will actually participate in one. “It depends on how brave he is,” Casten joked. “My theory is that he does not want this election to be about his voting record, and the problem with the debate for him is that it makes it a conversation about his voting record.” As a result, Casten thinks that Roskam will agree to a debate, but only “once it becomes apparent how badly he’s going to lose.” Casten calls his opponent’s voting record “despicable.” “This guy’s voted against the Violence Against Women Act, and then put a video on his website saying how he supports the Violence Against Women Act,” he says, exasperated. In Casten’s view, Roskam “has no pride in his own life choices,” and jokes that if they meet face to face “is going to be painful” for his opponent. “I hope he can deal with that,” Casten challenged.
Casten is confident, but he hasn’t racked up the same national support as many of the other Democratic candidates hoping to win Republican seats. Before the primary, Politico ranked the district as one of the top ten House seats to watch, naming it a potential “revenge of the suburbs.” According to Swing Left, the electoral activism group that is supported by Hillary Clinton’s Onward Together organization, IL-06 is one of the districts that has raised the most money through Swing Left and other allied groups’ fundraising efforts, over $180,000. Despite these accomplishments, as of the town hall, Casten was yet to bring in any national endorsements from PACs, and most of his endorsements were limited to environmental activists or local groups. To the chagrin of many IL-06 voters, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee had not listed the district on its “Red to Blue” list of the key races for Democrats to win to take back the House of Representatives at the time of the event, although the election has since been added. Since the town hall, Casten has also gained endorsements from groups including the Sierra Club, Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and ALF-CIO. In reference to IL-06, Ridgley Knapp, College Democrats of Illinois Political Director, said national attention on a race can have a particularly large effect on the primary, and points to Kelly Mazeski, who lost to Casten, getting coverage in outlets like the New York Times perhaps being a factor in making her the perceived front runner. “National attention on a seat is good, but it depends on the seat,” Knapp said, adding that he thinks “it very well could help in IL-06 because the district has people who are willing to vote for Clinton, and if the race is nationalized it could make it some type of Trump referendum.” In order for national attention to be the most effective, Knapp argued that “Casten has to be able to use both the anti-Trump energy, while also presenting something to strive towards.”
While the national attention on the race might be lagging, spirits are high on the ground in the district. Knapp said he believes it is the most likely district in the state to flip, and it is one of the seven Republican seats that Democrats are targeting across Illinois. At the Town Hall for Our Lives, the audience appeared to be convinced. Casten received a standing ovation when he first walked on to the stage, and attendees jumped to their feet even faster at the end of the program. Lara, one of the student organizers of the town hall, was impressed by Casten’s straightforward nature. “What I like about Mr. Casten is that he’s not fabricating things,” Lara said, pointing towards his honesty in admitting what he did and did not know in terms of the specifics of the Constitution and Second Amendment. Through Lara’s eyes, Casten represented himself as a “concerned citizen,” and local Democrats believe that perhaps that’s just what the district needs: someone who wants to hear from voters, and will try to take their views into consideration in analyzing the best way to vote, or systematically strategizing how to get legislation passed. “I’ve lived here for years,” an older woman in the audience said, “and I feel like this year is different. Maybe a Democrat has a chance.”
Image courtesy of the author. Ridgley Knapp served as The Gate's Interviews Editor, and now works as a Digital Fellow for the Sean Casten campaign. This story was updated on June 18th with information about Casten's recent endorsements.
Dylan Wells is a fourth-year Political Science major and Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations minor. This summer Dylan worked at CBS News in the Political Unit. Previously, she interned at ABC News' Washington, DC bureau as a Political Unit Fellow, twice at the Institute of Politics as the Events Intern and the Summer Programs Intern, and with POLITICO Live at the DNC. Last year she served as The Gate's Editor-in-Chief, and before that she served as the Elections Editor. Dylan was the recipient of the inaugural David Axelrod Reporting Grant, which she used for a story on domestic human trafficking. Dylan enjoys traveling, exploring the Chicago brunch scene, and playing with her dog, Wasabi.