Sunday, August 14, 2016

Race of the Day- Illinois U.S. Senate

85 Days Until Election Day

Status: Republican Incumbent
2012 Presidential Result: Blue State (Midwest)

Outlook: Leans Democrat

Since the 2000 election, save for two years, my Representative in the U.S. Congress has been either Mark Kirk or Tammy Duckworth. Since 2010, I have been very proud that Kirk has been my U.S. Senator, as I have been involved as a volunteer in every one of his campaigns, and had long advocated him as the kind of Republican who had what it took to break through in increasingly Democrat Illinois and win statewide. So much has happened in the last six years, and Senator Kirk has certainly beaten the odds before in regards to winning elections under difficult circumstances, as well as a life-altering medical emergency. Now, this year, he is facing what looks like his most difficult political battle yet. The combination of a Presidential election year and a statewide race in Illinois, just are not promising for Republicans. I am far from willing to concede the race is over, but Kirk is definitely the underdog under present circumstances and will need some breaks to win. I hope my moderate pessimism turns out to be unfounded.

As mentioned, Kirk, with a stellar resume, won a seat in Congress in 2000, in a district that was easily majority Democrat, but which had a history of electing moderate Republicans. After a couple of fairly easy reelection wins, the Congressman from the North Shore beat the same highly touted opponent, in tight races, in both 2006 and 2008, when circumstances were near brutal for Republicans in his district. This increased the talk of Kirk as a statewide contender, and after some back and forth, he did go ahead with a run for the Senate in 2010. After overcoming second-tier primary opposition on the right,  Kirk found himself in a down to the wire struggle against the statewide elected Democrat Treasurer, a young rising star in the party, and a personal friend of Barack Obama, whom he modeled his political identify after. Alexi Giannoulias was also tainted by ethical questions though, and the race should not have been as close as it was. The Kirk campaign had some tough moments though in the strong Republican year of 2010, as stories came out suggesting that Kirk had exaggerated honors he received during his then still active career in the military as a Naval Intelligence Officer. Ultimately, Kirk held on and won another close race, and it was quite an honor to be there in person to watch him declare victory. Clearly, the new Senator was excited and his political future looked bright.

Clearly, the pro-choice socially moderate Kirk, who also had a bit of unusual post-divorce co-existence with his liberal ex-wife was unlikely to ever make it on a GOP ticket, but he had the potential to become one of the most influential Senators on Capitol Hill, and perhaps a future Secretary of State or Defense in a GOP Administration. After just a year as a Senator though, the youthful looking 52 year old Kirk suddenly suffered a massive stroke, while in Illinois. His life hung in the balance after emergency surgery and after a while doctors said that while he was likely to regain his mental facilities, his speech and mobility would likely be forever altered

Kirk spent most of the next year in the hospital and rehabilitation facilities, but maintained that he planned to return to the Senate, staying away from a resignation that would have given his seat to a Democrat. He worked painstakingly hard to re-learn basic functions and in a moment of bi-partisan unity, Senators stood by as he slowly climbed the Capitol steps to return to his job on Opening Day of Congress in 2013. The Senator was back, but it was clear just how devastating his stroke was, as he has largely been reliant on a wheelchair and his appearance and speech were different. Since this time, Kirk's speech has seemed to improve further, but there continues to be much talk, in what is a very delicate and sensitive issue to many Illinois Republicans, that there may be some lingering effects. Senator Kirk seems to understand the issues of the day, but he has made some stark and at times odd public statements in recent years. He was always a bit blunt, even before the stroke, but the somewhat slurred nature of his speech makes it a bit more uncomfortable for people. It is almost as if he has lost a bit of a filter in what he wants to say and that he get distracted easily when trying to speak at length. This has led to reported "gaffes." Others might say that after facing death in the face, he returned to public life, unconcerned about what others think, and is simply committed to speaking his mind at all times.

As questions regarding Kirk's ability to perform his job as a Senator continued, many wondered if he would seek another term in 2016, or maybe even resign from the Senate early. The thinking though was that his election in 2010 was one of the only things that could have possibly brought a GOP Senator from the Land of Lincoln into office. He was always going to have a difficult reelection bid, but without Kirk, his fundraising experience, and history of cross-over appeal to Democrats, almost no Republican would have a chance of winning. Plus, Kirk made it clear he wanted to keep being a Senator, so he announced he would run again. In 2014, the very wealthy Bruce Rauner was elected Governor of Illinois, with Kirk's strong support, and while many of Kirk's top staffers left to work for Rauner, the Governor could be very useful, theoretically in raising money for the Senator. Still, Rauner is deeply involved in all out budget wars in Illinois state government and is definitely a lightning rod of his own in the state.

Since becoming a Senator, Kirk, while solidly a national security hawk in the John McCain and Lindsey Graham mold, has moved even further to the left on social issues, becoming the first GOP Senator to express support for same sex marriage, before the Supreme Court effectively legalized it nationwide. Many conservatives in Illinois, long wary of Kirk, declared they would never support him again, under any circumstance, even if it meant a Democrat taking over. To my surprise, no big name challenger to Kirk emerged in 2016, and the incumbent went on to a pretty solid 71-29 against a businessman in the March GOP primary, which I thought was a pretty strong result, all things considered.

Obviously, the Democrats would prove to be the biggest impediment to Kirk's reelection efforts. Illinois, once a national battleground state, has become increasingly blue, and that is unlikely to change in 2016, as the state that launched Barack Obama into public life and the native state of Hillary Clinton. For a time, I had doubts that a top tier contender among Democrats would ever emerge to face Kirk, and some would argue, that one has not, however, that is somewhat irrelevant at this point. I thought Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth would be less likely to give up a fairly safe House seat to run statewide, especially after becoming a first-time mother in her 40s, but with Democrats obviously seeing Kirk as vulnerable, she entered the race. In doing so, she has the support of Illinois's Senior Senator, Democrat Dick Durbin. Kirk was very appreciative for the way that Durbin assisted his staff, while Kirk was recovering away from Washington, and in 2014, the Republican gave some mixed messages about just how willing he would be to oppose Durbin's own reelection, but clearly there was "no deal" as it came to Kirk, as Durbin wants to see as many Democrats as possible elected to the Senate.

The daughter of an American Marine and an Asian mother, Tammy Duckworth was born in Thailand and spent much of her early years overseas. Frankly, she often speaks as someone to whom English is not her most comfortable language. She became an officer in the U.S. Army, and as a helicopter pilot, lost both legs and badly injured an arm, while serving in Iraq. Her heroic service earned her many accolades, and like her eventual Senate opponent, who is also a fellow veteran, Duckworth is largely reliant on a wheelchair.

Her story in 2006 gained the attention of Dick Durbin and then DCCC Chair, Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who recruited her as an anti-Iraq War candidate, who had sacrificed so much, to run against a Republican House incumbent. The race received national attention, but the more seasoned GOP candidate won, and Duckworth proved to be lacking in some regards as it related to politics, although nobody could deny her inspiring background.

After the loss, Duckworth was appointed to head the Illinois Veterans' Agency, by the soon to be disgraced and removed Governor Rod Blagojevich. Duckworth defended "Blago" through her time in state office, in what might come back to haunt her in this campaign. Also relevant is that she has been accused, during this time of using bullying and retaliation tactics against two whistle-blowers who alleged abuse in the agency. They filed a civil lawsuit against Duckworth downstate, and it looked like she might be facing a trial amid a tough Senate campaign. The Kirk campaign has made much of this development, but recently, the lawsuit was settled using state funds to pay the women. In a twist, Duckworth's campaign staff bragged about getting the politically troublesome lawsuit out of the way, and the plaintiffs took offense, and after some coordination with the Kirk campaign, wanted to go forward with the suit after all, rejecting the money. There is some confusion still about whether or not there will be a trial, but for now, it seems like a judge has stated the settlement was final, and thus no trial.

Moving on, Duckworth went to work for the Obama VA Department, and then in 2012, was elected to Congress, from a district that was drawn largely for her benefit specifically, making it a highly Democrat conglomerate of suburbs, including many Asian-American voters. While she won this seat reasonably comfortably, she still received less than stellar reviews on the campaign trail and many feel she should have beaten her opponent, right-wing freshman Congressman Joe Walsh, a somewhat fluke winner in 2010, with a penchant for saying highly controversial things, by an even greater margin. She was reelected in 2014, also likely underperforming expectations and then, shortly after giving birth, launched her campaign for Senate.

Party insiders in Illinois and Washington were quick to rally around Duckworth, but this did not sit well with all in the party, as African-American leaders from Chicago felt it was a mistake to pass them up for this opportunity, stating that with Obama not being on the ticket, it would be too much of a change to not have a black face representing the party in Illinois in some capacity in 2016. Many of these figures rallied behind the candidacy of Andrea Zopp, a longtime fixture in Chicago, who was most recently the CEO of the local chapter of the Urban League. At one point two decades, Zopp had been talked about as a potential Republican candidate for local office, but in the Senate primary, she ran to Duckworth's left and criticized the Congresswoman for being ineffective. A third contender would also enter the race, in the person of young State Senator Napoleon Harris, a former NFL Linebacker. Harris' candidacy was fairly invisible though and many believed that he was put on the ballot by party leaders in order to split the African-American primary vote for Duckworth's benefit. Ultimately, it did not matter, as she won with over 60 percent of the vote. Duckworth mostly tried to avoid debates, and in one Chicago television debate, that aired late at night, none of the candidates, including Duckworth looked in any way ready for "prime time." She was headed to the general election though and has used connections throughout the country to raise an impressive amount of money since then. Not all African-American activists in Chicago are fully on board with Duckworth at this point though.

This is going to be a brutal and expensive general election, although there are some suggestions that national Republicans might have already written this contest off and will spend money elsewhere. Right now, Kirk has less cash on hand than Duckworth, and that ought to be a matter of concern. Free media is likely to play a big part in how this race shapes up, but both campaigns might have reason to want to limit the importance of debates, because both of them are susceptible  to gaffes. For his part, Kirk has said he wants to debate Duckworth in both English and Spanish.

As an Illinois Republican, I fear of course, that anybody with an R next to their name, will not have much of a chance this year, because of the toxicity of the Donald Trump campaign. Long before he became the nominee, Kirk criticized Trump in very harsh language for some policy pronouncements on immigration, but as it became clear that Trump might head the ticket, Kirk said he would support him, and that he hoped to be a needed conservative mentor for the potential President. After Trump's remarks though on a Mexican-American judge, Kirk made national headlines by completely breaking with Trump and rescinding his endorsement, citing racism and bigotry, as well as concerns, from his own military background standpoint, that Trump could not be trusted to be in charge of nuclear weapons. Clearly, this was a long time in the making for Trump, and while he had given mixes messages on Trump before, he did break early with the presumptive nominee, something that other Republicans around the country might be wishing they had done as well. I had speculated that as a matter of political survival, Kirk might endorse Hillary Clinton, but that looks unlikely, as the Senator has genuine concerns with her as well on foreign policy and ethics. He said he would write in a candidate, but he should have just left it at that, instead of openly offering the names first of David Petraues, and then Colin Powell, as his write-in choices. Both of those names are in conflict in some regards for Kirk's stated reasons of opposing Clinton.

Political observers in the state have found this race, between two people, who are inspiring for how they go about life with disabilities, to have been quite ugly thus far in terms of the substance. The Kirk campaign has very much been planning to use the issue of the whistleblower lawsuit against Duckworth, as well as her stated remarks in which she called for the admission of Syrian refugees into the U.S., in far greater numbers than Obama or other Democrats have suggested. I expect the Syrian refugee matter will continue to be played up heavily in campaign ads.  On the other side, almost every statement from the Duckworth campaign or its campaign spokesman has been seen as being very much over the top. Some time back, Kirk, clearly frustrated with the murder rate in Chicago's inner city neighborhoods called for the mass arrest of the most prominent street gang. After some time, he conceded that his plan was unworkable but that it was important to go after the gangs. Recently, Duckworth's campaign has been suggesting that Kirk has called for the mass arrest of African-Americans without due process, leaving out any sort of the context of the comments, or the fact that Kirk never mentioned race, and Duckworth is openly assuming that all of the Gangster Disciples are black.

Simply put, this is going to be a tough race for Mark Kirk to win, but not impossible, and I hope to be able to help in some way in the noble effort to keep him in office. While I do not agree with Kirk on some issues, I would much prefer him representing me in the Senate to Duckworth, and I want Republicans controlling the Senate as well. It seems like this is going to be a bad year for the GOP, especially in Illinois though, and that would be a problem for Kirk, even if not for the stroke that robbed him of his future as a national political player to level he anticipated. The entire rationale of the Duckworth campaign seems to be based on the fact that she was permanently disabled while wearing the uniform of the country and that she is not a Republican. It might be enough, but it's pretty cynical in my view.

The Kirk campaign will do what it can to make it's case, and I think I can anticipate the theme of the campaign down the stretch. The Senator will be presented as an independent thinker, who serves the state and country, before any political party. I think it is a potent message, but a major factor of this race will be just how many Republicans will not vote for Kirk. That could make all the difference if it is close. The hope is that many will swallow hard and cast their ballot for him, as a means to stop Democrats, as many of those same people complain that other Republicans such as Kirk (and yours truly) will not do so for Trump. I will state that we are opposing Trump on human decency grounds, and not just ideological grounds, even though those exist too.

Mark Kirk was the first and I believe thus far only GOP Senator to call for his party to hold hearings on Obama's nomination of suburban Chicago native Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. Mitch McConnell seems to understand Kirk's predicament back home and has not complained about it. Kirk's independence on this matter has made it's way into campaign ads as is his strong opposition to Trump. This clearly is driving the Duckworth campaign mad, as they are finding it hard to paint Kirk as a lock-step right-winger.

On the other hand, Duckworth, whom relies almost exclusively on talking points and index cards when speaking in public, does not take any stances that might make many Democrats upset. She was brought into public life as the protégé of prominent party insiders and has maintained that identity throughout. While Illinois is a Democrat state, there is little reason to believe that Duckworth would be nothing but an automatic rubber stamp for the party.

People throughout the country are upset at politics as usual, and that is also the case here, as both Illinois state government, as well as that in the City of Chicago, make continued headlines for problems and dysfunction. Those who are sent to Washington are often considered part of the problem as well, but at least Kirk has the narrative of bucking his party on issues such as gun control and the environment, and doing what he thinks is right. He may share the same party label as Donald Trump currently, but he is opposed to Trump and what he represents for both the party and the country. GOP Congressman Robert Dold, who took over large parts of Kirk's former House district is in the exact same boat, as he faces a tough race. There are a lot of Democrats in Illinois, but perhaps many of them will realize that it might be more useful for the state and for democracy to have voices remaining in the changing Republican Party, who stand for moderate values and even more so against the influence of Donald Trump trying to take over the party.

To win, Kirk will need to get a lot of Hillary Clinton voters, to say the least. He has proven the ability to get Democrats before. After his stroke, and as much of a loose cannon as he may now seem, can he pull it off again? My gut unfortunately says no, with Donald Trump and right-wing deadenders being the main problems, but I think it would be a big mistake to automatically write off Mark Kirk.

Kirk campaign link:

Senate races predicted thus far: 5 D (3 Safe, 1 Likely, 1 Leans), 7 R (3 Safe, 2 Likely, 2 Leans) 

Overall predicted thus far: 41 D, 37 R


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