Vulnerable GOP senator serves as November bellwether

Campaign 2016 | Moderate Mark Kirk and his opponent, Tammy Duckworth, battle over seat that could tip control of the Senate
by Laura Finch
Posted 10/05/16, 02:00 pm

All of Capitol Hill, it seemed, shared Sen. Mark Kirk’s excitement as he climbed the Senate steps on Jan. 3, 2013, a year after suffering a debilitating stroke.

Several Democrats assisted the Illinois Republican on that cold winter morning, including Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Vice President Joe Biden. Then-incoming Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., told the Chicago Tribune it was a “‘fantastic day’ for people with disabilities and for the nation.”

That bipartisan display must seem to Kirk like an eternity ago. Many Republicans wonder why they should continue to vote for him when he so often sides with Democrats, and the Democrats who stood by him for those photo opportunities on the Senate steps are now doing their best to defeat him.

In a year in which every Senate seat matters, just a few toss-up races—several of which WORLD has already covered—will decide whether control of the Senate stays with Republicans or goes to the Democrats, giving considerable strength to a possible Clinton White House.

In June, the political blog FiveThirtyEight gave Duckworth a 77 percent chance of winning, noting, “If Kirk holds on in Illinois, it’s probably a sign that Republicans are keeping the Senate.”  Duckworth was even tapped to speak at the Democratic National Convention in July, a sign of strong support (and high expectations) from the national party.

Kirk, a divorced lawyer from Champaign, Ill., who joined the U.S. Navy Reserve as an officer and later became a commander, held positions on and off the Hill—including one post at the State Department—before winning the seat held by his former boss, Rep. John Porter, in 2000.

He has spent his time in the Senate focusing on fiscal issues, international relations, and local concerns, including issues involving O’Hare International Airport, the drug crisis in the Chicago suburbs, and environmental bills designed to protect the Great Lakes. 

A member of the prestigious Senate Appropriations Committee, Kirk voted in favor of the Balanced Budget Amendment and cosponsored the “Dollar-for-Dollar Deficit Reduction Act.” But he also voted to protect late-term abortions, prompting Illinois pro-life groups to protest at his district office late last year. Kirk has voted repeatedly against Obamacare—except when doing so also would have meant voting to defund Planned Parenthood.

Just one year after voters sent him to the Senate, an artery blockage caused a moderate ischemic stroke in Kirk’s brain. Doctors had to remove part of his brain, and movement on the left side of his body has been hindered ever since. But his neurosurgeon recently reported Kirk has made a full cognitive recovery.

“Now I’m definitely a disabled American with a wheelchair,” Kirk told one news outlet in May 2015. “That makes me not quite the demonizable Republican candidate that you would think.”

Weeks after that statement, the Senate race took a twist: Duckworth, an Iraq veteran and double amputee, announced her bid for Kirk’s seat. She occasionally uses prosthetic legs, so like Kirk, she can sometimes use a cane—but more often is seen in a wheelchair.

Despite seeming to have a strong chance in a liberal state, Duckworth is plagued by a lawsuit from her days directing the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. Two former employees have accused her of workplace retaliation. In June, news outlets reported the case had been settled, but last week the employees revealed they didn’t like the fine print in the settlement and have not yet signed it. The next court date in that case is scheduled for Oct. 5.

Duckworth touted a poll last week that put her ahead of Kirk by 5 points, but the Kirk campaign cites a poll that has her ahead by only 2 points. Real Clear Politics recently moved the race from “Leans Dem” to “Toss up,” so the race isn’t over yet. One analyst with the Cook Political Report told USA TODAY the two candidates are in “uncharted territory” due to their physical disabilities:  “What’s in bounds, what’s out of bounds, I think changes.”

Duckworth certainly isn’t going easy on Kirk, lambasting him at a recent newspaper editorial board forum for repeated verbal gaffes.

“His irrational comments pre-date his stroke,” she told the Chicago Tribune in August. “For him to use his stroke as something to hide behind is really shameful ... you know, neither one of us are victims. We have both recovered from disability. And to hide behind that, your ineffectiveness as a senator, behind that, is pretty shameful.”

Laura Finch

Laura is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute's mid-career course.

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  • Slava Tebje Gospodi
    Posted: Wed, 10/05/2016 03:00 pm

    As an Illinois citizen, I cannot vote for either senatorial candidate. Heritage Action Scorecard gives Senator Kirk a rating of only 15% just two points higher than Rep. Duckworth. There seems to be no difference between them on life and family values issues. One is a Democrat the other is a RINO. By contrast, the same scorecard gives four Democratic Illinois members of Congress higher scores than Kirk, including Rep. Daniel Lipinski who is solidly pro-life. In the latest issue of World, Joel Belz writes about why we should not be afraid to be ‘single issue’ voters. It is for this reason that I cannot in good conscience vote for Sen. Kirk.

  • KY MikeS's picture
    KY MikeS
    Posted: Fri, 10/07/2016 06:56 am

    I recommend expanding your decision to be more strategic than personal. Though the individual Republican candidate might be unqualified, support for him still supports the only party with an official pro-life plank that can have a much better long-term effect if they retain a majority in the Senate. The alternative is disastrous. Though we mustn't "worship" a party as savior, we are called to distinguish between better or worse. The right choice then becomes a matter of arithmetic, not individual character litmus tests. I encourage you to consider the good of the nation and not waste or neglect your precious vote. 

  • phillipW's picture
    Posted: Thu, 10/06/2016 09:56 am

    The worship of political parties in this country will be the demise of it.  People will die for their partisanship in the Democratic or Republican parties, but won't spend five minutes humbling themselves before God.  Whether a Democrat or a Republican gets elected shouldn't matter to people.  What should matter is that we humbly submit ourselves before God and pray for his forgiveness for our pride, arrogance, greed and theft across the board.  We are a despicable people, run by the most despicable of leadership that sees a campaign victory as the crowning achievement in their lives, which serves to benefit only them as they plunder the public treasury for their own selfish devices.