Is Tammy Duckworth a sure bet to beat Mark Kirk for Illinois' Senate seat?

This article originally appeared in June 27, 2016 issue of The Weekly Standard:

Down-Ballot Blues

Can Mark Kirk escape the Trump taint?

Distant newsrooms have sent word to Chicago that Republican moderate Mark Kirk is dead meat in his bid to win a second term as Illinois’s junior senator. He reliably tops newspaper lists of "Most Endangered GOP Senators in 2016."

The conventional wisdom is that, with Trump at the top of the ticket, Kirk will be one of many down-ballot Republicans sunk by the Donald. Thus do the Democrats win the Senate.

Not so fast.

At least in Illinois the question will be whom voters loathe less: the admittedly dreadful Trump or the assorted chiselers, payrollers, bounders, grifters, and ganefs who have run Illinois into the ground. The assorted so-and-sos being allies of Kirk's rival, Rep. Tammy Duckworth.

Illinois may be the single most corrupt and financially crippled state in the union. Could it be that Illinois voters will finally get fed up with disastrous Democratic rule? And might that anger spill over onto Duckworth?

Mark Kirk ( (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

Mark Kirk ( (E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune)

Two years ago Illinois voters were so sick of the corruption and mismanagement that they elected a Republican governor, Bruce Rauner, who ran on a confrontational, reformist platform. Since then, Illinois has spiraled even deeper into political, economic, and social chaos. Rauner's reforms have been stymied by the speaker of the Illinois house of representatives, Michael Madigan, who's known not only for his support of organized labor, but for his skill in arranging property tax breaks for pals and campaign donors. The toll: two years without a state budget; pension debts of more than $100 billion and counting; billions in unpaid bills; a Chicago school system near bankruptcy; Chicago itself not far behind; higher taxes; crippled services; residents and businesses jumping ship; murderous gang warfare in Chicago neighborhoods.

Can Duckworth avoid getting tarred with these troubles? To keep clear of the wreckage she'll have to distance herself from Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. Which may be hard, given that his support is how she got her start.

Before he became mayor, before he served as Barack Obama's chief of staff, Emanuel was an ambitious congressman and chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. He spotted Duckworth as an appealing candidate—an Iraq war veteran who, while copiloting a Black Hawk helicopter, lost both her legs in combat. Emanuel pushed her to run for the U.S. House seat representing the conservative west Chicago suburbs. She came close to winning, losing that 2006 election by only a few thousand votes.

But in Illinois, losers don't fade away—they get jobs. Just weeks after the election, then-governor Rod Blagojevich appointed her director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs. Loyalty being the coin of the realm in Illinois politics, Duckworth returned the favor by endorsing the discredited and clownish Blagojevich's reelection bid even after his corruption had been exposed. He eventually was convicted for trying to sell the Senate seat vacated by president-elect Barack Obama.

Obama would find Duckworth a job in his Department of Veterans Affairs as assistant secretary for public and intergovernmental affairs. In other words, she was responsible for looking after the reputation of the department, a job that wasn't what one would call a screaming success. After a few years in Washington, she came back to Illinois to make another go at a congressional seat—this time, in a district favorable to Democrats, she won.

It's quite a résumé: protégée of Rahm Emanuel; associate of Rod Blagojevich; official in the most disdained and dysfunctional department in the federal government. And she's supposed to challenge Illinois's dismal status quo?

Since he was first elected to the House in 2000, from a wealthy north suburban district noted for its limousine-liberal electorate, Kirk has worked to position himself as an independent in the mode of former Republican senator Charles Percy. A swing-district moderate who succeeded in winning, in 2010, a blue-state Senate seat, Kirk has been branded a RINO by hardline conservatives.

Duckworth's strategy is to paint and taint Kirk as a Trump supporter. Kirk was an early critic of Trump, both for the businessman's preposterous immigration policies and for his ridicule of Sen. John McCain's years as a POW. But Kirk had fallen in line after Trump secured the nomination. Then the presumptive GOP nominee accused the judge overseeing the Trump University class action lawsuit of bias because the judge is of Mexican descent. Duckworth blasted Kirk for not denouncing the billionaire and Kirk quickly reversed course, withdrawing his earlier backing for Trump. "I cannot and will not support my party's nominee for president," Kirk announced, "regardless of the political impact on my candidacy or the Republican Party."

Cynics will regard Kirk's reversal as a craven political move, necessitated by his supposedly dismal prospects. But according to Kirk's campaign manager, Kevin Artl, internal polling shows the race is neck and neck. Kirk has the advantage of speaking Spanish and polls better among Hispanics; Duckworth does better among African Americans. Artl notes that Kirk has always run as an underdog and has yet to lose an election.

Still, for all his efforts to distance himself from the top of the GOP ticket, Kirk may find it hard to shake Trump from around his neck. At the same time Duckworth is being dragged down by her associations with the disgraced Blagojevich and the hugely unpopular Emanuel.

We'll find out which of the albatrosses prove to be heavier.

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