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Chicago Tribune: Duckworth claims victory over Kirk in U.S. Senate race

November 8, 2016

Chicago Tribune: Duckworth claims victory over Kirk in U.S. Senate race

By Rick Pearson


Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth captured a U.S. Senate seat Tuesday, capping a rapid rise from injured Iraq War hero to member of the world's most exclusive club.


Riding a compelling personal story of perseverance and a host of political advantages, the two-term congresswoman from Hoffman Estates defeated Sen. Mark Kirk, a Highland Park Republican seeking a second full term.


With 95 percent of the state's precincts reporting, unofficial totals showed Duckworth with 55 percent compared with 40 percent for Kirk. Libertarian Kenton McMillen had 3 percent and Green Party candidate Scott Summers had 2 percent.


"We showed a campaign that respects the voters and is focused on practical solutions rather than shopworn slogans can actually be successful," Duckworth told cheering supporters at a downtown Chicago hotel. "We showed that a relentless focus on rebuilding Illinois' middle class and respecting hard work rather than wealth can be successful too."


Duckworth called her win "truly a grass-roots effort" and gave special thanks to her military comrades who rescued her when the Army helicopter she was co-piloting over Iraq was shot down by a rocket-propelled grenade in 2004.


"I'm here because of the miracles that occurred 12 years ago this Saturday above and in a dusty field in Iraq," said Duckworth, recounting the story of her recovery and likening it to the economic challenges being faced by the middle class.


"As we celebrate this amazing and hard-earned victory, let's keep in our sights and our hearts those who aren't celebrating tonight because they've been knocked down by life's unpredictability," she said.


Duckworth said she would go to the Senate "looking to honor the sacrifice and quiet dignity of those Illinoisans facing challenges of their own."


"I believe in an America that doesn't give up on anyone who hasn't given up on themselves," she said.


Kirk conceded defeat little more than an hour after the polls closed, delivering a short statement at a hotel conference room in Northbrook in which he said he called Duckworth to credit her with a "well-fought race."


"I told Tammy I would do everything possible to make sure Illinois has the strongest possible representation in the United States Senate," said Kirk, who added that he invited the Democrat to a "beer summit" at the Billy Goat Tavern, as he did when he won the 2010 Senate race.


Such a meeting, he said, would "show kids across Illinois that opponents can peacefully bury the hatchet after a tough election" and would provide a reminder that "what unites us as Americans is much stronger than what divides us."


"The unique Illinois gift to the country has been individual dignity and personal freedom — the practical Midwestern ethos we represent," he said.


Kirk had widely been viewed as the most vulnerable Republican in the nation to seek re-election this year. Democrats hoping to retake a majority in the chamber had viewed a Duckworth victory as critical to their national efforts. The win also means Democrats reclaimed the Senate seat that once belonged to President Barack Obama.


Duckworth, who is Asian-American, becomes the second woman of color that Illinois has sent to the Senate after electing Carol Moseley Braun, who is African-American, in 1992.


Duckworth ran extremely strong in Chicago and Cook County and was doing well in the suburban collar counties, while Kirk held an edge in more rural Downstate counties.


Voters got to weigh in following a campaign the two candidates at times seemed determined to make a referendum on who would better serve veterans' causes instead of who could better handle a U.S. senator's broad scope of duties. Duckworth served in the Illinois National Guard and Kirk is a retired naval reservist.


During the campaign, Kirk attacked Duckworth over her stewardship of the state veterans' agency. Duckworth responded by attacking Kirk's dedication to veterans' issues and alleged he sided with "Wall Street" interests instead of "Main Street" causes, such as allowing students to refinance college loans. She also pushed for free community college, something Kirk labeled a "giveaway."


The political landscape favored Duckworth. Democrats turn out in greater numbers in Illinois during presidential years. The polarizing Donald Trump was atop the Republican ticket. And Kirk made a series of controversial statements that gained national attention.


Duckworth was easily able to raise more campaign cash than Kirk for more than a year. Even the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee pulled some of its late advertising, sensing that victory was at hand.


Kirk spent much of what he raised on early TV attack ads as he attempted to negatively define his challenger in voters' minds. But he was unable to gain outside financial assistance of national Republican-backed super political action committees and independent expenditure groups, as they opted to look elsewhere to try to save Republican control of the Senate. That largely left Kirk on his own, with limited resources, to promote a message that he's moderate and a political independent.


Those liabilities allowed Duckworth to campaign in play-it-safe mode, largely looking for votes outside the Chicago area where she was less known while trying to heal any rifts left over in the city's black community after her overwhelming March primary win over opponent Andrea Zopp.


Duckworth's ascent to the Democratic U.S. Senate nomination marked a remarkable decadelong political rise. She lost both legs in the November 2004 helicopter attack and spent months recovering at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Democratic U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin quickly became a political mentor.


She narrowly lost a 2006 bid for a west suburban congressional seat to Republican Peter Roskam. Weeks later, she was asked by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich to become director of the state Department of Veterans' Affairs, allowing her to keep a high public profile. After Obama's 2008 White House victory, Duckworth went to Washington to become an assistant secretary in the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.


After Democrats gained the right to redraw congressional district boundaries following the 2010 census, Duckworth returned to the suburbs and defeated one-term Republican firebrand and future radio talk show host Joe Walsh in 2012. She easily won re-election in 2014 to position herself for a run against Kirk.


Kirk previously served 10 years in the House representing the North Shore before winning the Senate seat Obama vacated to enter the White House. On the eve of the Senate election, Kirk predicted an "upset victory," underscoring the odds against him.


Kirk, too, sought to tell a powerful personal story of recovery in his re-election campaign. Just a year or so into his Senate term, Kirk had a massive stroke that led to a lengthy rehabilitation. The stroke left him without the use of his left arm and limited use of his left leg.


His return to the Senate in 2013, which included a climb up the steps of the Capitol assisted by Vice President Joe Biden and his close colleague from across the aisle, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, became his inaugural campaign ad this year.


But Kirk didn't help his re-election bid with a series of controversial statements that prompted questions about his ability to serve in office. He questioned Duckworth's family heritage and miliary legacy during a debate, then later apologized and said, "I'm not a racist."