Race to Watch is a twice-weekly Ward Room column dedicated to helping voters familiarize themselves with candidates in the lead-up to the Nov. 8 general election. This edition's focus is Illinois' U.S. Senate Race.
Sen. Mark Kirk is facing a tough bid for reelection against Rep. Tammy Duckworth in what is considered one of the nation's most contentious U.S. Senate races.
Kirk, who beat out Oswego businessman James Marter in the March Republican primary, has served in the U.S. Senate since 2010. The senator is a retired Navy reservist who previously served Illinois’ 10th congressional district from 2001 to 2010.
The Republican senator is considered a social moderate and fiscal conservative. He is a pro-choice gun control advocate who recognizes climate change. In recent months, Kirk has worked to establish himself as an independent voice in the Republican party, pushing for confirmation hearings for President Barack Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland and distancing himself from GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
In March, Kirk told NBC 5 that he would support Trump if he were the Republican presidential nominee. He pulled his tacit endorsement of Trump in June after the billionaire made incendiary statement about the heritage of a Hispanic judge presiding over civil fraud lawsuits against his beleaguered Trump University. Kirk called Trump’s comments “un-American.”
In June, the senator announced that he would write-in either former Director of the Central Intelligence Agency David Petraeus or former Secretary of State Colin Powell for president.
He has since flipped back and forth between the two non-candidates, landing on Petraeus, who resigned from his post as the CIA’s director in 2012 following a scandal stemming from an extramarital affair with his biographer, Paula Broadwell. He pleaded guilty in federal court last year to a charge of unauthorized removal and retention of classified information. Neither vote would count because write-in candidates are required to register with the state.
The Republican has recently come under fire for statements he made about a $400 million to Iran that was tied to the release of American prisoners. Last month, Kirk said President Barack Obama was "acting like the drug dealer in chief" for giving "clean packs of money" to a "state sponsor of terror."
The payment was announced in January, a day after the four Americans were freed and on the same weekend U.N. sanctions against Iran were lifted. The White House and State Department have denied Republicans' claims that the transaction served as a ransom, claiming that the timing was coincidental.
Last week, the senator drew further criticism for saying the U.S. government "didn't have to get our guys back" from the Iranian hostage situation.
Kirk noted that he chairs a Senate Banking subcommittee on national security and international finance and that the committee is slated to hold a hearing on the payment. He has also authored bipartisan legislation to hold Iran accountable for violation international law and cheating on the nuclear deal. He is dedicated to renewing the Iran Sanctions Act.
Since being elected to the Senate, Kirk has made the fight against terrorism a top priority and has called for a temporary cessation to the program bringing Syrian refugees to the U.S.
Kirk has also worked to reduce Chicago's gun violence, authoring a bill alongside New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand that looks to make gun trafficking a federal crime. Over the past three years, he has also secured funds to fight "gangs of national significance" through his role on the Senate Appropriations Committee. $17.5 million of those funds established and maintains seven U.S. Marshals Counter Gang Units throughout the country, including one in Chicago.
In May of 2013, Kirk claimed that he was dedicated to destabilizing major gangs, like the Gangster Disciples, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
"My top priority is to arrest the Gangster Disciple gang, which is 18,000 people," Kirk said. "I would like to do a mass pickup of them and put them all in the Thomson Correctional Facility."
In July of that year, Kirk admitted that the plan was "not actually that practical." Duckworth tweeted a response in June, criticizing Kirk's stance.
"Kirk, who called for the mass arrest of 18,000 African Americans, was apparently fine w/ Trump's #StillTooRacist call for mass deportation."
In July, Politifact found the congresswoman's claim to be false, noting that she took Kirk's statement out of context and gave the impression that he called for the "general mass incarceration of 18,000 African-Americans." Additionally, the report noted that Kirk's congressional voting record, which supports comprehensive immigration reform and a fair pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, doesn't align with Trump's deportation policy.
Nevertheless, Duckworth doubled down in August, claiming Kirk "has said that he thought that all the members of the 15 thousand plus of African-American men should be jailed because they're supected of being members of a gang, without due process."
Kirk is also a supporter of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. Duckworth chose not to support the TPP as it was drafted because she claims the deal doesn't crack down on currency manipulation or impose stricter rules of origin. Duckworth has claimed that she supports "fair trade" that doesn't disadvantage American workers.
"Unlike her opponent, who has voted for every trade deal under the sun at the expense of American jobs, Tammy supports fair trade and opposes the loopholes companies use to ship jobs overseas," Duckworth spokesman Matt McGrath said in a statement.
Duckworth, a combat veteran who has served as the representative for Illinois’ 8th congressional district since 2013, is posing a serious challenge to Kirk’s bid for reelection. In June, FiveThiryEight gave Duckworth a 77 percent chance of winning the state. Additionally, the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics listed Illinois as a “likely Democratic” state earlier this month.
The congresswoman beat out former Urban League president and CEO Andrea Zopp and state Sen. Napoleon Harris in the March Democratic primary.
Duckworth joined the United States Army Reserve in 1990 and lost both legs co-piloting a Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq in 2004. She subsequently served as Director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs from 2006 to 2009 and later as Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
In June, Duckworth reportedly settled a 2007 workplace retaliation lawsuit stemming from her time at the IDVA. The Kirk campaign used the case as a component of their strategy against Duckworth, even sending “save the date” postcards to remind voters of the trial date.
However, according to a Daily Herald piece from earlier this month, an agreement with the case’s plaintiffs hasn’t been reached due to two major sticking points. According to the report, Christine Butler and Denise Goins, want more than than the reported $26,000 compensation in an earlier agreement. The former VA employees also reportedly don’t want to agree that there was no wrongdoing by Duckworth in the case.
According to the Union County Clerk’s office, the judge has the case's file and no action has been taken since it was removed from the trial docket. However, according to the Daily Herald report, spokeswomen say Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who is representing Duckworth, views the agreement as final.
"Tammy Duckworth is a legitimate war hero, but a terrible public servant," Kirk spokesman Kevin Artl said in a statement. "During her time as Rod Blagojevich's Director of Veterans Affairs, taxpayer dollars were wasted, whistleblowers were threatened and fired, and veterans were abused. At the USVA, Duckworth wasted millions of taxpayer dollars on ineffective programs while veterans died waiting for care."
In March, another pair of whistleblowers, Germaine Clarno and Dr. Lisa Nee, claimed Duckworth did little to respond to their claims of mistreatment of veterans and corruption within Illinois' Hines VA. Additionally, Rochelle Crump, who was deputy director at the IDVA before being pushed out by Duckworth, claimed the congresswoman was more interested in advancing her political career than helping veterans, Crain's Chicago Business reported in March.
Kirk, who currently serves as chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, has worked to confront corruption in the VA. He has enacted new laws aimed at protecting whistleblowers from retaliation and firing.
"And now in Congress, Duckworth has been rated as one of the least effective and most partisan lawmakers," Artl added. "Illinois deserves better."
Artl is referencing an InsideGov report that ranked Duckworth one of the nation's least effective members of Congress. That report has been called into question in two separate Politifact pieces. In one report, Roy Meyers, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, called the analysis "clickbait garbage," claiming it was short-sighted.
During her congressional tenure, Duckworth has called for improvements to veterans’ healthcare and public education, as well as more oversight of military spending.
Additionally, she has fought for college affordability, including tuition free community college for deserving students. She is also a champion of equal pay for equal work to end the gender pay gap and has supported legislation to increase the minimum wage to $12. As a congresswoman, Duckworth has also supported middle class tax cuts and opposed Citizens United.
"Tammy is running for Senate to represent families like her own - families that have been knocked down but haven't given up," McGrath said. "She believes we need to create an economy in Illinois that offers opportunity for everyone, not just those at the top, and that's why she's prioritizing workforce development in Illinois by investing in infrastructure, American manufacturing, and quality, affordable education."
"This race offers a clear choice between someone like Tammy Duckworth, who puts service to her country and to working families first, and Republican Mark Kirk, who does the bidding of Wall Street banks and corporate special interests," he added.