Before Donald Trump was even a presidential candidate, the reelection of Republican incumbent Mark Kirk was in doubt. He was and is still considered the most vulnerable Republican Senator up for reelection this year. Kirk won his first term in 2010 amidst political intrigue in Illinois when then-Governor Rod Blagojevich was caught basically selling Obama’s seat to the highest bidder. Things are different in 2016 since it is a presidential year in a state that favors Hillary Clinton.
Previous to this cycle, Kirk suffered a stroke which incapacitated him for some time. There was speculation that he was considering retirement rather than running for another term in a daunting year. He put those rumors to rest after rehabilitation and returning to Senate and announced his intention to run in 2016.
Considered at times a thorn in the side of the Republican Party in the Senate, Kirk prides himself on his moderate record. He is for gay and abortion rights and for gun control measures. He is the first to attack fellow Republicans over their stance on the Merrick Garland nomination and met with the Supreme Court nominee earning the praises of Barack Obama. He has received some favorable comments from environmental groups for his efforts to keep the Great Lakes clean. Surprisingly and to the shock of many on the Left, he received the endorsement of the Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBT advocacy group. And he is the only Republican Senator with an “F” rating from the NRA.
Essentially, the GOP has written this race off this year. Recently on the campaign trail, Kirk has said that Bernie Sanders is an ally, he is a friend of the environment, and the government should not shut down over defunding Planned Parenthood. The one saving grace for Kirk is that he often performs better than the national ticket. In 2004, when a Congressman, he bested George W. Bush by 17 points in the 1oth District.
But, he is also prone to gaffes. He referred to Lindsey Graham as “a bro’ without a ho” and asserted that people drive fast through black neighborhoods. Despite this, it is sometimes difficult to tell if Kirk is running as a Republican. He was even censured by the GOP in one Chicago ward and had an endorsement taken back. In the 114th Congress, Kirk has agreed with his GOP colleagues only 72% of the time ranking him third lowest in that category.
Even still, the GOP Senatorial primary was, in the end, not even a close affair. Illinois conservatives ran James Marter against him in the primary. Historically, a Republican has not won a Senate election in Illinois in a presidential year since 1972 (Charles Percy). And since joining the Senate, national security and terrorism have been high priorities for Kirk.
On the Democratic side, Tammy Duckworth, who represented a Chicago suburban Congressional district, will be the nominee. She lost both her legs in a helicopter mishap in Iraq and became a star at the 2012 Democratic national convention. She received the early endorsement of Dick Durbin and soon most of the Democratic brain trust and several Illinois unions and feminist groups fell in line behind her.
Her primary opponent was Andrea Zopp, formerly of the Chicago chapter of the Urban League. Zopp received the endorsement of most of the minority Democratic contingent in Illinois and the Chicago area. Duckworth’s primary against Zopp was closer than the Kirk-Marter match up on the GOP side, but Duckworth prevailed.
To a lesser extent, Duckworth also veers from the Democratic Party line at times, especially in military and foreign affair matters. In 2015, she voted for a Veteran Affairs accountability bill that Obama threatened to veto, has voted for the Republican defense authorization bill, and reauthorization of the intelligence program. She broke ranks with Obama over the TPP.
But there are differences between Kirk and Duckworth when it comes to foreign affairs and the military. Kirk has called for a cessation or pause in the Obama administration’s plan to resettle Syrian refugees in the country. He recently aired ads telling constituents they should be terrified of ISIS and insisted Duckworth was a “fool” for falling in line behind Obama over the resettlement proposal. They also differ on the disposition of detainees at Guantanamo.
When it comes to Trump, Kirk is trying to walk a narrow path stating that although he disagrees with some Trump policies and rhetoric, he will support him in his effort against Hillary Clinton. Before Indiana, he said he would certainly support Trump. After Indiana, his mind had not changed when given the opportunity. He even asserted that Trump might help down-ticket candidates.
For the Democrats, their main problem may be taking this race for granted. The DSCC already skipped the Illinois race in terms of reserving time for advertisements. Instead, they opted for more contested races in swing states where the presidential outcome is less certain (Ohio, Florida, etc.). Kirk himself has declared himself perhaps the best Republican to weather a Trump presidential nomination since he has been solidly pro-gay rights, pro-choice, and anti-gun.
Many pundits characterize Kirk as the most endangered Republican incumbent Senator this year. Even though he lost many backers and aids to the administration of GOP Governor Bruce Rauner, they remain loyal to Kirk. Just recently, he supported a bill that would relax some mandatory minimum sentences and signed onto a letter with some very Leftist members of the House calling on the NBA to cancel their All-Star Game in Charlotte, North Carolina over that state’s HB-2.
Said Kirk: “For me, it’s just Mark Kirk being Mark Kirk, because I was always independent of my party in the House, as well as in the Senate. I think for Illinois, they want a thoughtful independent voice and not just a party Xerox.”
We shall soon see. But for a Senator with such a huge target on his back and basically abandoned by his own party, and although trailing in most polls, Kirk still holds 41-31% advantage in his favorability with 28% having no opinion. Convincing those 28% that he is a better choice than Duckworth is the task at hand.
Kirk once represented the Illinois 10th District- a Chicago suburban district- won by Obama in 2008 and 2012, and by Al Gore in 2000 and barely by Bush in 2004 (about 100 votes). Whether Kirk can show that same mojo he demonstrated when a Congressman will be very important this year. In 2010, he won given the turmoil surrounding the Blagojevich affair, it was not a presidential year and, although the GOP could have done better, was still a pretty good year for Republican candidates.
These facts coupled with the fact he faces a very strong candidate in 2016 would indicate that Kirk is headed for defeat in Illinois. However, it is this writer’s opinion that the race will be closer than most are expecting, but that Duckworth will prevail in the end.