Senate Watch: Illinois Republican Mark Kirk Facing Tough Re-Election Challenge

The first-term Republican who took Barack Obama's Senate seat is now one of his party's most vulnerable 2016 candidates.
Photographer: Andrew Harrer

Republican Senator Mark Kirk’s political vulnerability as he seeks re-election in 2016 boils down to this: he’s a Republican in a Democratic state.

His party affiliation proved less burdensome in 2010, midway into Barack Obama’s first term in the White House. That year, in one of the best national political environments for Republicans since World War II, Kirk scored a 2-point victory, capturing the seat the president had once held.

Kirk faces a tougher climb in the coming year, when Democrats are hoping to win back control of the Senate. The Illinois electorate will be bigger and more diverse in a presidential election year than it was during the mid-term election. And while the 2016 Democratic presidential standard-bearer probably won’t approach Obama’s huge home-state margins in 2008 and 2012, Illinois favored the Democratic nominee by 10 points in 2000 and 12 points in 2004.

Republicans currently hold a 54-46 majority in the U.S. Senate, and they are the defending party in 24 of the 34 races, including seven in states Obama carried in the 2012 election. Kirk’s seat is one of the most competitive, according to nonpartisan political analysts.

The senator will have to persuade hundreds of thousands of Illinois voters to back him after voting first for the Democratic presidential nominee at the top of the ticket. A Republican last won an Illinois Senate election in a presidential election year more than four decades ago, in 1972, when incumbent Charles Percy won re-election.

U.S. Vice President Joseph "Joe" Biden, second right, and Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, left, assist Senator Mark Kirk, a Republican from Illinois, second left, up the steps of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. Kirk returned for the first time since he suffered a stroke on Jan. 23, 2012.

Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Joe Manchin assist Senator Mark Kirk up the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 3, 2013, as Kirk returned to work for the first time since suffering a stroke the year before.

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Kirk’s bipartisan appeal is tied to his maintaining a voting record that keeps the national Republican Party at some distance. In the 114th Congress, he’s sided with his party 72 percent of the time on votes that divided the two parties. In the polarized Senate, where so many votes fall along party-lines, that’s the third-lowest measure of party unity among Republican senators, according to Bloomberg data.

He was the only Republican who voted last week to thwart Senate legislation that would have barred federal funding for Planned Parenthood. The bill, S. 1881, failed to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to advance.

He sided with the Obama administration, and opposed groups aligned with Tea Party activists, in pushing for a reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, which provides loans and guarantees to aid overseas sales by U.S. companies. Boeing Co., a major beneficiary of the bank’s programs, has its headquarters in Chicago. In March 2013, Kirk became the second Republican senator to support same-sex marriage.

The leading Democratic candidate is two-term Representative Tammy Duckworth, who represents suburbs of Chicago west and northwest of that city. She faces a challenge in the primary next March from Andrea Zopp, who led the Chicago Urban League.

Representative-elect Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat from Illinois, right, arrives at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., U.S., on Thursday, Jan. 3, 2013. Duckworth lost both legs after her helicopter was shot down in Iraq in 2004. The 113th Congress convenes today in Washington where new members will try to meld their diverse backgrounds in a legislature containing a record seven openly gay lawmakers, an unprecedented 20 women in the Senate and the first all-female state delegation, from New Hampshire.

Representative Tammy Duckworth is the leading Democratic challenger to Senator Mark Kirk.

Photographer: Pete Marovich/Bloomberg

Duckworth’s donors include the top three Democrats in the Senate; Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, Minority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois, and third-ranking Chuck Schumer of New York, whom Reid has endorsed as his successor as leader when he retires at the end of 2016.

She votes more frequently with Democratic leaders than Kirk does with Republicans, though Duckworth, an Army veteran, has strayed from the party line at times on military and foreign policies.

In July 2015, she was among 16 Democrats who voted for a Veterans Affairs accountability bill, H.R. 1994, that the Obama administration threatened to veto. Earlier in the year, she voted for the Republicans’ defense spending bill, H.R. 2685, and a reauthorization of intelligence programs, H.R. 2596.

Duckworth sided with Democratic-leaning labor unions, and opposed Obama and Kirk in voting against trade promotion authority.

A race between Kirk and Duckworth would be notable for how both candidates have overcome physical infirmities to serve in demanding jobs. Duckworth has used a wheelchair since 2004, when she lost her legs after the Army helicopter she was piloting over Iraq was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Kirk suffered an ischemic stroke in 2012 that kept him out of the Senate for almost a year.

“I was determined to return to the Senate to do the job you elected me to,” Kirk said in a May 2015 campaign commercial that showed him during his rehabilitation and climbing the U.S. Capitol steps.

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report rates the Illinois U.S. Senate race as a tossup, while the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia says the contest “leans” to the Democrats. The Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report rates the Illinois contest as “Toss-Up/Tilt Democrat.”