CHICAGO – He's the stroke survivor who returned to Washington after a year of rehab determined to put people before his party. She's the war hero who lost both legs in the Iraq War, then turned to fighting for Illinois families.
Making their final push for voters to send them to the U.S. Senate, Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth are returning to the personal stories that had their contest shaping up early on as one the most compelling in the country.
Both candidates are disabled and have triumphed over adversity. But those story lines took a back seat for much of the race as Kirk went on the attack against Duckworth, who is heavily favored to win Tuesday.
Kirk ran multiple ads ripping Duckworth's record as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. He also criticized her as ineffective in Congress and repeatedly tried to link her to former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who appointed Duckworth to the state post and is now in prison.
Duckworth hit back with ads saying Kirk lied about his own military experience and criticized him for a series of verbal gaffes.
At a debate last week, he mocked Duckworth's immigrant background and her family's military service by saying he'd forgotten her "parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington." He apologized the next day but lost some key endorsements and faced criticism that his remarks were racist.
Kirk previously inflicted damage on his campaign with other controversial comments, including calling an unmarried senator a "bro with no ho."
With Election Day approaching, Kirk is circling back to a positive ad about his stroke and recovery that he ran early in the election cycle. In it, he recounts being in an ambulance, holding a paramedic's hand and thinking it was "the last human being I would ever touch."
On Sunday, Kirk plans to join fellow stroke survivors in climbing the stairs of Chicago's Willis Tower — something he's done four times since his 2012 stroke. Kirk says he sees stair climbing as a metaphor for overcoming challenges; Sunday's event benefits the rehabilitation hospital where the first-term senator learned to walk and talk again.
"Every Illinois family has steps to climb," Kirk said. "I want to serve as the inspiration for over 300,000 stroke survivors in Illinois that while their lives have changed, recovery is achievable and they must never give up."
Duckworth, a second-term congresswoman, is running a final ad that references the day the helicopter she was co-piloting was shot down in Iraq in 2004. In the statewide ad, Duckworth says she knows what it's like "to fight for your life behind enemy lines" and to not be left behind.
"If you elect me to the Senate I'll be guided by the simple notion that if you don't give up on yourself, America won't give up on you," she says.
Duckworth entered the race with some big advantages. Illinois is a reliably Democratic state — even more so in presidential election years, and Duckworth raised millions more for what her party saw as the top opportunity to pick up a seat and potentially retake control of the Senate.
Kirk reported having just $576,000 cash on hand as of Oct. 19, while Duckworth had about $2.5 million, according to a pre-election campaign finance filing.