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State Election

U.S. Senate race in Illinois loses some of its spotlight

Once closely watched contest has fewer eyes on it as Duckworth lead grows, but don't count out Kirk yet

Rep. Tammy Duckworth.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth.

CHICAGO (AP) – Illinois was once billed as one of November’s most competitive U.S. Senate races. Now, Democrats are counting on U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth to defeat Illinois Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk as the party looks to reclaim the majority in the chamber.

Duckworth is expected to benefit from what’s historically been high Democratic turnout during presidential election years, and the most recent polls show she has a comfortable lead.

But Kirk warns that counting him out would be a mistake. The former congressman and first-term senator said a recent internal poll showed him trailing Duckworth by just two points.

“News of my political death has been way too early,” Kirk said, noting he has exceeded expectations on Election Day and always closed strongly.

In a state where Democrats typically win statewide, Kirk has worked to distance himself from Republicans, especially this year, when he’s been one of the most vocal critics of GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump, calling him “delusional” and “too bigoted and racist for Illinois.”

Kirk, of Highland Park, also frequently notes his “F’’ rating from the National Rifle Association and that he called for the Senate to hold hearings on President Barack Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court. And former Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney praised Kirk’s independence last week, adding that the GOP must hold on to the Senate to “keep America from going off the rails.”

But Duckworth has had her own high-profile endorsements. Obama appeared at a fundraiser with her this month, and the campaign launched a new radio ad in which Obama notes Duckworth’s father worked in a factory and that she worked her way through college with the help of student loans and grants.

“Tammy knows what’s important to our families. That’s because she’s walked in our shoes,” Obama says, calling the Hoffman Estates resident “a terrific leader who will never stop fighting for all of us.”

Both candidates also offer compelling personal stories. Duckworth lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq, while Kirk suffered a stroke in 2012 and went through grueling rehabilitation before returning to work in Washington.

The second-term congresswoman brought in more than three times the cash Kirk did during the final fundraising quarter before the Nov. 8 election, leaving her with more than $4 million to Kirk’s roughly $1.4 million.

Kirk has criticized Duckworth’s time as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs and in a leadership post at the federal VA, running television ads featuring women who say Duckworth ignored problems they reported or retaliated against them.

Duckworth has denied the claims, says she was unaware of problems with waiting lists at Illinois veterans’ homes and blames the failure of a program to increase veteran access to health care on imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Kirk said last week he isn’t buying those explanations – “I’m sure she’ll say, ‘the dog ate my homework,’ or something.”

Duckworth has blasted Kirk in campaign ads for exaggerating his own military record, including his assertion that he came under enemy fire while flying reconnaissance missions in Iraq. The former Navy intelligence officer has apologized for the misstatements.

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had scheduled additional TV ads in the final weeks of the race, but recently cut back on the order and diverted the money to states with more competitive Senate races.

Kirk and Duckworth are scheduled to meet for two televised debates before Nov. 8: Thursday in Springfield and Nov. 4 in Chicago.

Libertarian Kent McMillen and Scott Summers of the Green Party also are running.

 

 

CANDIDATE Q&A

Tammy Duckworth,

Personal

• Nothing compares to the experience of becoming a mother in November 2014, she said, adding: “Abigail inspires me to do better every single day.”

• She completed her doctorate in human services last year, with a dissertation on physician use of electronic medical records in Illinois. “It took 6 years, many late nights and a tremendous amount of support from my friends and family, but I’m very proud to have attained the degree,” Duckworth said.

Professional:

• As a member of the Armed Services Committee, she introduced measures to cut waste in military spending, including a provision requiring all military branches to partner when developing new camouflage patterns. (Duckworth said that in 2013 there were as many as 14 different patterns being used by the four branches, increasing the cost of new uniforms). A 2015 General Accountability Office Report stated the Army chose not to introduce new camouflage “in part because of this legislation,” saving the government $4.2 billion over 5 years.

• She noted her work on behalf of veterans, including co-authoring and working to pass the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention for American Veterans Act, which President Barack Obama praised. The bill works to ensure service members have access to mental health care and created new suicide prevention efforts between the Veterans Administration and other mental health organizations.

“There is still work to be done to help reduce the rate of Veteran suicide, but this bill is a crucial step in protecting the lives of those who have risked their lives for our nation – and I don’t believe there is anything more significant than that,” Duckworth said.

Mark Kirk

Personal

• Kirk recalls the 2012 stroke that left him unable to use his left arm or hand and with limited use of his left leg. “After a rigorous rehabilitation and recovery process, I climbed the steps of the United States Capitol less than a year later and returned to the Senate to work for the people of Illinois,” Kirk said. He’s taken up tower climbing as part of his rehabilitation, climbing sections of Chicago’s Willis Tower four times alongside other stroke victims he’s dubbed his “Battle Buddies.” He wants to climb the Washington Monument and Statue of Liberty. “My stroke has given me a more positive outlook on life, our state and the potential of each person.”

Professional:

• He prides himself on being “the independent voice for Illinois,” he said, mentioning multiple instances in which breaking from the GOP has helped the state, including writing and passing legislation to revive the U.S. Export-Import bank, a small federal agency that makes and guarantees loans to help foreign customers buy U.S. goods. The measure, which was opposed by tea party conservatives, was considered a victory for business groups. The bank says that last year it authorized $20 billion worth of transactions, supporting 164,000 U.S. jobs.

• Kirk also noted his work to protect the Great Lakes, including enacting a public notice requirement for any entity that dumps sewage in the lakes.

• When partisans tried to shut down the government, “I spoke out,” he said.

• The chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs also touts new protections for whistleblowers “so they can protect our veterans in Illinois and nationwide.”

Kenton McMillen

Personal

• “Raising two fantastic children into independent, drama-free adults.”

Professional:

• “I have been on someone’s payroll for over 31 consecutive years and have always earned more than the previous year.”

Scott Summers

Personal

• “Raising two children to be outstanding citizens.”

Professional:

• “As Public Guardian of McHenry County, it’s my job to provide legal representation for people who have run out of other options. I take great pride in that duty and consider it one of my greatest professional accomplishments.”

 

CANDIDATE PROFILE

Democrat

Tammy Duckworth, 48, Hoffman Estates

Occupation: U.S. Representative for Illinois’ 8th Congressional District, first elected in 2012.

Education: University of Hawaii, B.A.; The George Washington University, M.A.; Capella University, Ph.D.

Past professional/political positions: Assistant Secretary, U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2009-11; Director, Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, 2006-09

Family: Husband Bryan Bowlsbey and daughter, Abigail.

Top three priorities in the U.S. Senate:

1. Strengthening our economy by investing in manufacturing and infrastructure.

2. Building a stronger workforce by making college accessible and affordable.

3. Honoring the service and sacrifice of our men and women in uniform and veterans, as well as ensuring America pursues a smart foreign policy that never again sends American troops into harm’s way without a clear objective and exit strategy.

Republican

Mark Steven Kirk, 57, Highland Park

Occupation: U.S. Senator, elected in 2010.

Education: New Trier High School; Cornell University, B.A. in history; London School of Economics, M.S.; Georgetown University, J.D.

Past professional/political positions: U.S. Representative for 10th Congressional District, five terms, 2000-10

Family: Mother Judy Kirk, stepmother Beverly Kirk

Top three priorities in the U.S. Senate:

1. Security. I am committed to keeping the American people safe from the continued threat of terrorism. There are continued reports of failures of the refugee screening process and the capabilities of (the Islamic State) to infiltrate the programs around the world with fake Syrian passports. As long as our screening process is weak, I am calling for a pause in the program to ensure that those seeking to take advantage of our nation are stopped.

2. Veterans. The VA has become a corrupt, political and bureaucratic mess on many levels. As Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Military Construction and Veterans Affairs, I am confronting the VA at every level. I stand with those who shine light on the corruption, like at Hines VA Hospital. I have enacted new laws to protect whistleblowers from retaliation and firing.

3. Spend Less. Congress should also be focused on putting our nation on a responsible fiscal path by cutting wasteful government spending, eliminating duplicative and unnecessary federal programs and avoiding tax hikes that stunt economic growth and make it harder for working families to get by.

Libertarian

Kenton Craig McMillen, 55, Melrose Park

Education: Northern Illinois University, B.A.; Roosevelt University Lawyers’ Assistant Program, Certificate.

Occupation: Paralegal

Past professional/political positions: Student Senator, Northern Illinois University

Family: Single, father of son Justin and daughter Nikia

Top three priorities in the U.S. Senate:

1. Reducing the size of government.

2. Start bringing troops home.

3. End the War on Drugs.

Green Party

Scott Kingwill Summers, 67, Harvard

Education: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, B.A. in liberal arts; Northwestern University’s Kellogg Graduate School of Management, M.B.A.; Northern Illinois University, J.D.

Occupation: Attorney, Public Guardian and Public Administrator of McHenry County (since 2013)

Past professional/political positions: Private practice attorney (1989-present); trustee, McHenry County College (2005-2009).

Family: Wife and two children

Top three priorities in the U.S. Senate:

1. Economic rejuvenation.

2. Equal opportunity in education and employment.

3. Climate action.

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