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Behind the scenes: ‘Surge’ follows 2018 wave of women candidates

Effort destroyed definitions of ‘electability,’ Rep. Lauren Underwood says

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In the final days of her 2018 campaign, Lauren Underwood was sitting in a car, looking on her phone at a 1957 picture of a white woman angrily screaming at a young Black woman as she went to class at Little Rock Central High School. 

“It just hit me, that that is what yesterday was. And it’s painful and difficult and unpleasant,” Underwood said, referring to how her opponent in Illinois’ 14th District, Republican Rep. Randy Hultgren, questioned her roots in the district and her credentials as a nurse. 

“What they were saying is that I am not who I claim to be,” Underwood said at the time. “And it had nothing to do with the qualifications to be a member of Congress. Nothing.” 

The scene unfolds in the new film “Surge,” a documentary that followed Underwood and two other Democratic women as they tried to unseat House GOP members in 2018, and who were part of a wave of female candidates running for office. “Surge” premieres on Showtime next week. 

Capturing history 

Wendy Sachs and Hannah Rosenzweig, who directed and produced the film, said in an interview Wednesday that they wanted to capture what appeared to be history in the making. Following President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 and the historic Women’s March the day after his 2017 inauguration, a record number of women became candidates for office.

“It wasn’t just about marching,” Rosenzweig said. “But it was about making real change in their communities.”

Underwood beat Hultgren, while the other two candidates featured in the film, Jana Lynne Sanchez in Texas’ 6th District and Liz Watson in Indiana’s 9th, lost. Trump had won their districts by wide margins in 2016, carrying the 6th District by 12 points and the 9th by 27 points. He won Underwood’s district by a much narrower 4 points.   

With her victory at age 32, Underwood became the youngest Black woman ever elected to the House. And this election cycle, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has included Texas’ 6th District on its target list.

Sachs said the film intentionally featured women running to flip GOP-held seats. That focus is a key difference between “Surge” and “Knock Down the House,” the Netflix documentary that followed women taking on the Democratic establishment in 2018, including New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

Even though Sanchez and Watson lost, Underwood and 23 other women went on to flip Republican seats in 2018, handing Democrats their majority. 

“We’re destroying these narrowly held definitions of what electability means,” Underwood said in an interview. “The idea that I grew up in this community, that I share values with this community, would have been something radical 20, 25 years ago. It would have been something radical 10 years ago,” added Underwood, whose district is 87 percent white.  

“But here we are in this moment,” Underwood said. “And not only did we win. We won every county.”

The hope, said Rosenzweig, is that the film can “help galvanize voters and support women up and down the ballot” once again in 2020. 

The campaign continues 

“Surge” details the long odds that Underwood, Sanchez and Watson faced in seeking to oust incumbents two years ago. But this cycle, Underwood is heavily favored to hold on to her seat outside Chicago. And because of the COVID-19 pandemic, campaigning this year looks very different from the house parties and handshakes featured in the film. 

Underwood joked that if there were a documentary about her 2020 campaign, “We’d have like a webcam set up on a wall, and you’d watch me on a lot of Zooms.” But she said she is still out in the community, hosting “porch parties” so everyone can stay socially distanced. 

Her GOP opponent this year is state Sen. Jim Oberweis, and he was not the favored candidate of national Republicans. Case in point: The Congressional Leadership Fund, a House Republican-aligned super PAC, sent cash to the Illinois Conservative PAC, which in turn disclosed spending more than $900,000 against Oberweis just before the mid-March primary, which he won.   

The House GOP campaign arm has continued to brand Underwood a “fake nurse,” a repeat of 2018 attacks. She holds a nursing degree from the University of Michigan as well as master’s degrees in public health nursing and health policy from Johns Hopkins University. And she served in the Health and Human Services Department in the Obama administration.

A spokeswoman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, Carly Atchison, said in a statement in June that Underwood “posed as a nurse in campaign commercials to get elected and become another liberal, lying Washington politician.”

Underwood called the attacks “baseless” and “gross mischaracterizations.” And she said watching the film helped her brush off those questions about her credentials.

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“Those feelings that I articulated [in the film] were things that I carried with me for a long time, since election eve 2018,” Underwood said. “And so to be able to let that go and say basically, ‘Haters are gonna hate. That’s just what they do’ and move past it is something that has been really powerful for me” 

Underwood, who has made health policy a signature issue, had hauled in $4.8 million for her reelection campaign and had $3.2 million in cash on hand as of June 30. Oberweis raised $1.4 million through June 30 and had $375,000 in the bank, according to federal election records.

Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race Solid Democratic.

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