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Politics Trumps Policy in U.S. Senate Race

Kirk and Duckworth arriving at the Illinois State Fair
Amanda Vinicky (Kirk); Brian Mackey (Duckworth)
NPR Illinois
Republican Sen. Mark Kirk and Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth are seen arriving for party rallies at the Illinois State Fair.

Our two-part series looks at where Sen. Mark Kirk and U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth are on a few key issues, and why the politics of 2016 mean those policy positions may not have much effect on the outcome.


Although Illinois is not considered a battleground state in the presidential election, it could help decide which party controls the U.S. Senate.

First-term Republican Senator Mark Kirk is fighting to keep his job against Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth.

We're bringing you two stories on the campaign. Tomorrow, we'll hear about the politics of the race. But first, Brian Mackey has this look at several of the candidates' policy positions.

We're going to focus on three areas for this story: the vacancy on the U.S. Supreme Court, guns and crime in Chicago, and the crisis in Syria.

The Supreme Court has had a vacancy since February, when Justice Antonin Scalia died unexpectedly while on a hunting trip in Texas.

In March, President Obama nominated federal appeals court Judge Merrick Garland to fill the seat. But Republicans in the Senate had already vowed to oppose any nominee, and they've made good on that. Kirk has been something of an exception — he at least met with Merrick Garland, and had this to say.

KIRK: "He's been duly nominated by the elected president of the United States to fill a vacancy which we know exists on the court. We need open-minded, rational, responsible people to keep an open mind, to make sure the process works."

Kirk has called for confirmation hearings for Garland.

But Duckworth goes even further, saying Kirk ought to tell the Senate leadership he won't support them unless they hold hearings.

She pressed her point in October at an editorial board meeting of the Chicago Tribune.

DUCKWORTH: "We actually have to tell the leadership, whether they are Democrats or Republican, to say, 'I will not vote for you for leader unless you have these hearings. I will not vote for you unless you let us have an actual confirmation vote on the Supreme Court nominee. It's one thing to take picture and check the box with the media. It's another thing to actually follow up and demand a vote."

Turning next to the issue of guns, the two candidates are in the same ballpark. They both got a letter grade of "F" from the National Rifle Association. Their differences are a matter of approach and emphasis.

Kirk, for example, would focus on trafficking and the relatively small number of gun shops — in Illinois and out of state — that are responsible for selling a large percentage of the firearms used in crimes.

KIRK: "In my talks with the ATF, we have found that two guns stores in Tunica, Mississippi seem to have a close and continuing business relationship with the Gangster Disciples. With the Gillibrand-Kirk legislation, we can criminalize that relationship and shut down the supply."

Duckworth says her approach would go beyond gun control measures like stronger background checks, banning certain types of firearms ...

DUCKWORTH: "... all of those things. But it's also talking about economic injustice. We have a 50 percent unemployment rate among young black men on the south side of Chicago."

In order to find policies on which the candidates more sharply disagree, it helps to move from domestic to foreign affairs.

Kirk, like many Republicans, has been wary of allowing Syrian refugees into the United States. He's run an ad criticizing Duckworth for her willingness to take more into Illinois.

Duckworth has also opposed arming Syrian rebels — something favored by both President Obama and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

DUCKWORTH: "I do think that continued use of surgical airstrikes, as well as the use of any type of agreement with the Russians towards a no-fly zone, towards a cease-fire, is something that we should continue to press on. But this is not something America can do on its own. And I will not be someone who will just write, carte blanche, and say, 'Go ahead and send in more troops, go ahead and do these things.' I want to be there when issues of war and peace are negotiated in the Senate."

Kirk says he favors a regional solution.

KIRK: "I think we ought to have a safe-haven that's administered by the Jordanian military. You keep people who want to not be barrel-bombed protected by the U.S. military and the Jordanian military — so they can stay in the same religion, the same language — and make an international commitment to protect people right there in the region."

Three topics among many. Of course, given the political realities of this most unusual election year, those policy prescriptions, in the end, might not matter much to voters.

More on that in our next story on Illinois' 2016 Senate campaign.

I'm Brian Mackey.


Illinois voters could be pivotal in deciding which political party controls the U.S. Senate.

Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth is taking on incumbent Republican Senator Mark Kirk.

Both candidates are fairly moderate, and yesterday, we heard about a few of their policy ideas.

But as Brian Mackey will explain, the dynamics of the 2016 election cycle mean that political forces — not policy — will likely determine the outcome.

This was supposed to be one of the hottest races in America. It's President Obama's old Senate seat — the one Rod Blagojevich tried to sell.

On the left, Iraq War veteran Duckworth was the anointed candidate, with backing from the Democratic Party establishment.

On the right, Kirk also had a path cleared by party insiders — despite a challenging recovery from a 2012 stroke and a series of gaffes that prompted one Illinois Republican Party bigwig to call for him to step down last year — only to take it back after just an hour's worth of high-level phone calls.

But in some ways, this was always going to be something of an uphill climb for Kirk. He won the seat by less than two percentage points — and that was in the Tea Party wave year of 2010, when other Republicans were running up the score. This year is different: No other incumbent Republican senator is running in a bluer state — that is, one that went as decisively for Obama as Illinois, where the president won in 2012 by 17 points.

Nevertheless, last year at least some pundits thought the race was equally winnable by Kirk or Duckworth — the Cook Political Report rated it a "toss up."

But then ...

TRUMP: "Ladies and gentlemen ..."

This happened.

TRUMP: "I am officially running for president of the United States. And we are going to make our country great again."

Donald Trump launched his campaign by saying Mexican immigrants are "rapists" and "drug dealers." As he took off, Trump went on to make a number of controversial statements: like that he'd resume torturing prisoners, kill the noncombatant families of terrorists, and ban Muslims from coming to the U.S.

Kirk endorsed Trump. Until early June, when Trump had been complaining about unfair treatment in the civil lawsuit over Trump University. He focused on what he called a "Mexican" judge — in fact the judge was American born, as CNN's Jake Tapper pointed out:

TRUMP: "This judge is giving us unfair rulings; now I say why. Well I'm building a wall, OK? And it's a wall between Mexico — not another country."

TAPPER: "But he's not from Mexico. He's from Indiana."

TRUMP: "He's (of) Mexican heritage. And he's very proud of it."

For Kirk, it was a bridge too far. He issued a statement withdrawing his support.

It's a perfectly logical position in Illinois, where Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton is outpolling Trump 53 to 28. But the move will cost Kirk some support. In August, while Kirk was speaking at the State Fair Republican Party rally, Denis Fisher held up a Trump sign and said this to one of my colleagues:

FISHER: "I'm not going to vote for U.S. Senate. If Sen. Kirk doesn't want to support our nominee, I'm not going to give him my vote."

And Kirk's attempts to cut loose of Trump have not stopped Duckworth from trying to lash them back together.

DUCKWORTH: "My family has served this nation in uniform going back to the revolution. ... We didn't do that just so the likes of Donald Trump and Mark Kirk can turn their back on the Constitution that founded this great nation, and I will not let them do it."

Heading into the final weeks of the election, Duckworth seems to be in a strong position. She has consistently raised more campaign cash, and began October with more than four million dollars to his less than one-and-a-half.

She's also up by 14 points in the Simon Institute poll taken at the end of September — though a couple of other polls earlier in the month were much closer, with Kirk down by just two and five points respectively.

Finally, Duckworth got endorsements from the big Chicago papers — with the Tribune going so far as to say because of the stroke, "Kirk no longer can perform to the fullest." Kirk disputes that, asking voters to judge him on his record, not his disability.

I'm Brian Mackey.

Brian Mackey covers state government for NPR Illinois. You can follow his reporting on Twitter and Facebook. Versions of these stories were first broadcast on Illinois Edition on October 24 and 25, 2016.

Brian Mackey formerly reported on state government and politics for NPR Illinois and a dozen other public radio stations across the state. Before that, he was A&E editor at The State Journal-Register and Statehouse bureau chief for the Chicago Daily Law Bulletin.
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