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The race between Republican incumbent U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth is an interesting and important one, even against the backdrop of one of the most unusual presidential races in recent memory.
Illinois voters will have a significant say in whether the GOP keeps control of the Senate and, should Hillary Clinton win the White House, the makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court. Kirk, despite having repeatedly broken with his party and tacked leftward on a number of issues, is considered by many pundits to be the most vulnerable Republican in the Senate this election. The seat he is trying to win for a second six-year term was that of President Barack Obama before Kirk won as part of the 2010 tea party wave that returned the congressional majority to the GOP.
What’s more, the race could be a historical first in that both major-party candidates are disabled veterans. Kirk, who served 22 years in the Navy Reserve as an intelligence officer, is recovering from a debilitating stroke he suffered in 2012. Duckworth, who flew Black Hawk helicopters in the Illinois Army National Guard, lost both her legs and suffered other serious injuries in 2004 when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq by a rocket-propelled grenade. Both retired at the same officer grade – Kirk a commander, and Duckworth a lieutenant colonel.
While Kirk has called his regular departures from the GOP platform a matter of putting principles before party, Duckworth’s campaign has called it an attempt to pretend he’s a Democrat in a blue state that tends to vote even bluer in presidential elections. Twenty-four of the 34 Senate seats up for election this year are held by Republicans.
But this doesn’t mean that Kirk and Duckworth see eye-to-eye on a lot.
Kirk has steadfastly opposed plans by Obama to settle refugees in the U.S. from the Syrian civil war until a more thorough way to screen out terrorists hiding among them can be implemented. Duckworth, like many of her fellow Democrats, supports resettling with the current level of scrutiny. While Duckworth signed on to a letter supporting bringing in 100,000 refugees – 10 times what Obama first suggested – her campaign has steadfastly denied Kirk’s allegations that she wants to bring in 200,000 refugees.
Duckworth supported the Iran nuclear deal, saying that the U.S. could not walk away from the agreement drawn up among its allies and attempt to negotiate alone. Kirk has been among the loudest critics of the deal, which he alleges gives Iran a path toward developing nuclear weapons.
Among Kirk’s breaks with the GOP are his support of giving Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland hearings for the position, and for Democratic gun-control initiatives supported by Duckworth, most recently with expanding background checks and preventing terrorism suspects from buying firearms in the wake of the Orlando nightclub shooting. He is the only Senate Republican with an “F” rating from the National Rifle Association.
Kirk, who said earlier in the presidential race that he would back whichever Republican candidate emerged as the nominee, changed his mind when that turned out to be Donald Trump. Kirk has publicly distanced himself from Trump and said he had not “demonstrated the temperament” for the presidency in the wake of comments in which Trump said that a Mexican-American judge could not fairly try a lawsuit filed against Trump University. Kirk did not attend the Republican National Convention.
Both Senate candidates enter the race with some past and present political baggage. Duckworth was named in a lawsuit alleging workplace retaliation during her time as the head of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs – the case, which had been scheduled for an August trial, was settled in June. While Kirk has repeatedly blasted Trump’s comments, he is himself prone to gaffes and misstatements, such as a statement last year in which he called an unmarried fellow senator a “bro with no ho.” And while Duckworth’s campaign has repeatedly tried to tie Kirk to Trump, she had ties with former governor and now federal inmate Rod Blagojevich, who appointed her to the veterans’ affairs post.
Kirk served five terms representing part of the north shore in the U.S. House before his 2010 election to the Senate. Duckworth was elected to the House in 2012 after defeating one-term Republican firebrand Joe Walsh, whose district, like others, was redrawn after the 2010 census by the Democrat-dominated Illinois General Assembly.