A Democratic challenger with a smash-mouth style seeks to flip a suburban Illinois district Hillary Clinton carried in 2016.Ask Sean Casten about the sharp tone of his congressional campaign, and he responds by going for the jugular. In a bellwether race as Democrats try to take the House, Mr. Casten has been accused by his opponent, six-term GOP Rep. Peter Roskam, of spraying “rhetorical gasoline” and “parroting Donald Trump.” Nonsense, replies the Democratic challenger.
“If you don’t have a thick skin, I’m not sure why you’re in politics,” Mr. Casten says, after we duck into a quiet corner during an office-park meet-and-greet. “What Roskam is offended by is that I’ve had the temerity to speak truth to power. He’s voted 94% of the time with Trump. He has on his website that he is proud to work at Denny Hastert’s desk. I’m opposed to pedophilia. If that bothers him, that’s between him and his God.”
To back up a smidge: Mr. Casten is referring to an old press release, from 2011, on Mr. Roskam’s official website. It explained that Dennis Hastert, who served as House speaker from 1999-2007, was passing down a “historic desk” used by Illinois congressmen since the 1940s. Five years after bequeathing the antique, Mr. Hastert admitted he had sexually abused boys as a high-school wrestling coach in the 1960s and ’70s. And this horrifying crime now reflects on Mr. Roskam . . . how, exactly?
Welcome to Illinois’s Sixth Congressional District, where the political debate this year is peppered with casual references to Nazis, morons and, yes, pedophiles. These Chicagoland suburbs, which went for Hillary Clinton by 7 points in 2016, are a prime pickup opportunity for Democrats. The district, shaped like a cocktail shrimp, arcs between O’Hare Airport and the particle accelerator at Fermilab. Half of adult residents went to college, one-fifth have a graduate degree, and the median household earns $99,000.
But a journalist who parachutes into the Sixth District, expecting to write about tax policy or health care, soon ends up pondering stranger questions: Is civility simply outmoded in 2018, the equivalent of bringing a flintlock musket to a gunfight? Even in the Midwest’s tree-lined suburbs, which are full of the educated women who fled the GOP under Donald Trump?
Mr. Roskam, whose harshest censure is occasionally to call his opponent “obtuse,” doesn’t think so. “It’s primarily moms who are the guardians of civil discourse,” he tells me at a tiny Dunkin’ Donuts in Elk Grove Village. “They’re not impressed with the president, who tweets the way he tweets. And they’re not impressed by my opponent, who tweets the way he tweets.” A minute later, he adds: “What I’m communicating to them is, ‘I’m not going to embarrass you like that.’ ”
But in these heady days, who’s embarrassed? On Tuesday the president of the United States, writing on Twitter , insulted a stripper, who claims to have had an affair with him and then unsuccessfully sued him for defamation, by calling her “Horseface.” Democrats, incensed by Mr. Trump, the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh and much else, have shouted GOP officials out of restaurants and picketed their front lawns. Rep. Maxine Waters, whose Democratic constituency near Los Angeles gave Mrs. Clinton 78% of its vote, made headlines a few months back by expressly endorsing these kinds of tactics.
What makes Mr. Casten’s fiery message notable is that he is trying to win a swing district. Most politicians, as Election Day approaches, water down their rhetoric to attract independent voters. Mr. Casten keeps pouring 100-proof whiskey. When the Trump administration this summer was separating families of illegal aliens, he said in a Chicago Tribune debate that “we are literally kidnapping babies at the border.” At the suburban Daily Herald last month, he said wealth inequality is, historically speaking, “getting dangerously close to the levels that precede revolutions.” The same day he repeated a conspiracy theory that an attorney—reported to be of Mexican and Jewish descent—was “flashing white-power signs behind the Brett Kavanaugh hearings.”
A political newcomer, Mr. Casten pitches himself as a truth-teller in an age of alternative facts. He spent his career fighting climate change while making a profit by capturing wasted energy at factories or converting coal utilities to natural gas. He says he voted for George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole, but he characterizes today’s GOP as complicit in the rise of a demagogue. “This isn’t partisan,” he tells a crowd of about 100 in Elgin, “to call out misogyny, to call out racism, to call out the fact that there was an actual member of the Hungarian Nazi Party in the White House.” (Mr. Casten is referring to Sebastian Gorka, a former Trump adviser, who denies having Nazi connections or anti-Semitic views.)
Even beyond Mr. Trump, the two Sixth District contenders don’t agree on much. Mr. Roskam, a fairly conventional Republican, has voted to repeal and replace ObamaCare. He describes himself as pro-life. He helped write last year’s tax reform and says it’s working, “no question.” He cites a visit to a manufacturer in Downers Grove, during which his hosts pointed out $4 million of new equipment: “They said the only reason they bought it this year was because of the tax reform—full expensing.”
The congressman rates the president’s performance as “middling.” After Mr. Trump’s solicitous Helsinki press conference with Vladimir Putin, Mr. Roskam called it “an affront to American democracy.” He opposed pulling out of the Paris climate accord and says “the smarter move was: stay in, stay at the table, have more influence.” In principle, he thinks Congress should reclaim authority over trade and tariffs it has delegated to the president.
Mr. Casten, in contrast, wants to repeal the tax law altogether. “It has been a massive boon to the owners of capital,” he says. “Dividends are up, stock repurchases are up, but median wage growth is actually down.” He instead credits President Obama for low unemployment and other rosy indicators: “We’re just continuing on the same trend line.” Mr. Casten thinks universal health care, expanding ObamaCare with a “public option,” could save the U.S. perhaps $1 trillion a year.
He sees abortion “as a medical procedure, like a gallbladder surgery,” he explained in a July debate. Thus he has no qualms about spending taxpayer money on it. Most such funding is blocked currently by the Hyde Amendment, named for Mr. Roskam’s Sixth District predecessor, Rep. Henry Hyde. “There is absolutely no—zero, zippo, zilch—evidence that reducing access to abortion reduces the incidence of abortion,” Mr. Casten says. “So all that that does is put women’s lives at risk. It’s stupid policy. And I would love, as the inheritor of Henry Hyde’s seat, to be able to cast the deciding vote to repeal it.”
Finally, he paints Mr. Roskam as a flunky for Mr. Trump. “I think you have an obligation, if you have the bully pulpit, to call out the fact that we have a demagogue in the White House,” Mr. Casten says, “and that there have been horrible demagogues throughout history who have used the exact same playbook Trump is using.” He presents the question of impeaching Mr. Trump in pragmatic terms. “I can say with absolute certainty, every day he’s in office is a danger to the country and to the world,” Mr. Casten says. But ousting a president requires a two-thirds Senate vote: “I think there’s a real danger in having an impeachment if he’s not removed, because you’ve now made the situation worse.”
It’s hard to know, in the end, how much to make of Mr. Casten’s rhetoric. Sometimes his remarks seem like missteps by a first-time candidate. This summer the Washington Free Beacon posted audio of him opining that “Trump and Osama bin Laden have a tremendous amount in common, because they have both figured out how to use the bully pulpit to activate marginalized young men.” He apologized for the comparison.
Other times, the provocations appear intentional. In December, commenting on news that the Republican National Committee had reinstated its support for Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, Mr. Casten tweeted that the GOP “is officially now the Pedophile Party.” Nearly a year later, after Mr. Roskam has brought up that tweet more than once in public debates, it still hasn’t been deleted. Why not?
Back in Elgin, as the interview concludes, I thank Mr. Casten for his time, and we amble toward the dessert table. While we walk, I toss out what seems like a throwaway question. Asked in February to name “one current leader who most inspires you,” Mr. Casten pickedDan Savage, a sex columnist. What motivated that choice? “He has this combination,” Mr. Casten explains, “of completely righteous indignation, and an awesome sense of humor.” He cites a contest Mr. Savage held in 2003 to name a graphic sex term after then-Sen. Rick Santorum. The Savage neologism later made news in the runup to the 2012 presidential election. As Mr. Santorum sought the Republican nomination, the top Google search result for his name was this explicit definition.
Mr. Casten then offers up another story. In the 1980s, he says, an activist was trying to get New York’s Mayor Ed Koch to take a strong stance on the AIDS crisis. Koch, who always deflected rumors he was gay, kept demurring. So the activist, in Mr. Casten’s telling, played hardball: “Finally he went to Koch, and he goes, ‘Here’s the deal. I’m going to tell the Daily News tomorrow that I had sex with you in a bathhouse last night unless you do f—ing something about this AIDS crisis, because my goddamn friends are dying.’ ”
The result? “Koch stepped up,” Mr. Casten recounts, laughing. “And sometimes the world needs that, right? I’m not saying that’s necessarily me.” But at times, he believes, the Savages are on the right side of history: “There’s points where people who are willing to go beyond the norms of discourse have an advantage, if nobody’s willing to go there. And sometimes you need people who will say, ‘You know what, I’ll meet you out there in that world, and I’m going to bring you back in, and I’ll use any means necessary.’ ”