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Tammy Duckworth vs. Mark Kirk: Who Will Win?

The two politicians are in a dead heat in what could be the most contentious—and most important—Senate race in the country.

Illustration: Thomas Kuhlenbeck

“Salivating” is not too strong a word to describe the eagerness of Democrats to take back Republican Mark Kirk’s Senate seat this year. The path to a liberal Senate—Democrats need only five wins to recapture control—runs straight through Illinois, making the neck-and-neck race between him and Tammy Duckworth an 11 on a scale of one to 10.

A private poll conducted for Kirk in late March found Duckworth squeaking ahead, 42.7 to 39.6 percent. Still, if the 8th District congresswoman is tempted to measure for Senate office curtains, she has good reason: With an endorsement from President Obama and backing from deep-pocketed donors such as Emily’s List, she’s likely to surge quickly.

Also on her side: the simple fact that she’s a Democrat. Liberal voters have every reason to flood the polls, with late Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia’s seat and social issues from gun control to immigration, not to mention the specter of President Donald Trump, all hanging in the balance. (It’s no accident that Duckworth’s handlers regularly remind voters that Kirk said he “certainly would” support Trump as nominee.)

Both Duckworth and Kirk breezed through the March primaries, each winning by more than 40 points. Kirk never debated his opponent, James Marter. Duckworth faced off against hers, Andrea Zopp and Napoleon Harris, in only one televised debate. Zopp, the former president of the Chicago Urban League, blasted Duckworth for not bothering to campaign in black neighborhoods. Still stinging from the snub, members of the City Council’s black caucus boycotted a Duckworth-organized “unity breakfast” in late March.

Nonetheless, in November, the black vote is unlikely to go to Kirk, who, in 2013, proposed rounding up and incarcerating 18,000 members of the Gangster Disciples. So it’s no surprise that the most recent poll shows Duckworth ahead among African Americans by a whopping 70 to 12 percent.

Kirk, through circumstances beyond his control, is making it easy for Democrats. Once known for his verbal fluidity and touted as a future secretary of state, he has become a veritable engine of gaffes. He tops every list—from The Washington Post’s to Politico’s—of most endangered Republicans.

As a five-term North Shore congressman and through his first year in the Senate, Kirk threw himself into work, becoming a world-class authority on national security. Then, in January 2012, he suffered a massive stroke. He took a year’s leave from the Senate for grueling rehab, but he remains paralyzed on his left side.

Kirk’s struggle was heroic, capped by a triumphant walk up the Capitol steps when he returned to the Senate. But he’s running against a genuine war hero. Duckworth, a Purple Heart recipient, was copiloting a Black Hawk helicopter over Iraq in 2004 when a rocket-propelled grenade blew off her legs and severed her right arm. (The arm was reattached but is largely unusable.)

In the run-up to the election, Kirk and Duckworth will be forced to debate. Political consultant Don Rose says he has heard that Kirk’s camp is worried about putting their guy on a stage. He calls Duckworth “not the brightest candle in the menorah,” but at least her “[debating] insufficiencies are not going to be palpable.” Kirk’s likely will be. See his recent penchant for blurting out odd remarks, such as calling Senator Lindsey Graham a “bro with no ho.” Top GOP donor Ron Gidwitz said last July that Kirk shouldn’t seek reelection. Gidwitz quickly retracted his comments, but his reservations were probably also shared by others.

Knowing he must pivot left to have any chance, Kirk not only pledges to work across the aisle but has moved so aggressively that he’s just short of sitting on the Democrats’ laps. Rose calls his enthusiasm for Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, a “gimmick.” Gimmick or not, Kirk persists, telling voters that he was the first Republican to buck Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s declaration that the Senate would block any Obama nominee. (The gusto only goes so far—Kirk has said he would just “consider” voting yes to confirm Garland.) Kirk also earned the Human Rights Campaign’s endorsement, in part for cosponsoring the Equality Act, which would ban discrimination against LGBT people. (Some Kirk critics argue that Duckworth had a better record on LGBT issues during the last session.)

Kirk says he’s skipping the Republican National Convention in July to campaign. More likely, he needs to avoid getting photographed with Trump. (His cheeky excuse to WGN: “I’ve got to really do my hair that week.”) Duckworth will likely have a primetime role at the Democratic convention, taking the stage on her titanium legs, one with an American flag design. Expect to see top-tier surrogates—the president and VP, Hillary, Bill, and celebrities galore—campaigning for her here.

It will be among the most expensive races of this cycle. Duckworth collected $2.1 million in the first quarter of 2016 to Kirk’s $1.2 million. With 24 Senate seats to defend—Rose says Republicans fret most about seven—the GOP will likely direct its money to incumbents with a better shot of winning. Even now, says Kent Redfield, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois Springfield, Kirk is getting minimal attention from conservative groups. “They’re looking to limit damage in a Democratic year,” he says. “And I think Kirk gets the short end of the stick.”

And by running against Duckworth, Kirk, says Rose, “loses the advantage of his handicap—the only advantage he’s got.”


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