Duckworth wins U.S. Senate seat, declaring a historic moment

By Guy-Lee King and Duke Omara

U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) rode out upbeat campaign predictions Tuesday to handily unseat U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL), marking a fiercely fought campaign that drew national attention.

Speaking to a room full of supporters at her campaign watch party, she said that she plans to work on college loan debt reform, Illinois renewable energy changes and veteran care. “We are filled with hope that history will be made tonight,” she said.

Her victory, which came early in the evening, seemed to be a beacon of light at the end of the tunnel to supporters present at her campaign victory celebration in downtown Chicago.

Duckworth’s family, campaign supports, spectators and friends were all in the ballroom of the J.W. Marriott to celebrate the newly elected senator’s victory.

“I am over the moon excited,” said tearful Donna Epton, a four year Duckworth volunteer. “I’ve been a volunteer for her; this is my third election for her. The last two I could not vote, because I was not in her district, but to be able to vote for Tammy and see her get elected as our next senator is just beyond belief.”

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) arrived to the celebration prior to giving his introduction speech for Senator-elect Duckworth. With the presidential race still a cliffhanger, Durbin had predicted that a Clinton victory would help the state’s two Democratic Senators to push for infrastructure improvements.

Kirk, a veteran Congressman, who served only one term in the Senate, made his concession speech after Politco and other national media called the race in favor of his rival.

In his brief concession speech, Kirk urged his supporters to “celebrate living in the best country in the world.” He also struck a conciliatory tone that mirrored what he said earlier in the day about opponents being able to work together no matter how tough the race was

Kirk, who earlier in the day said he had voted against his party’s nominee, Donald Trump, was under fire after he scrutinized Duckworth’s ancestry at an October debate in Springfield.

Though Kirk did not admit that his remarks about Duckworth would hurt him, he did say the impact of his actions would not be known until after the results came in.

The mood at the Kirk campaign election headquarters was subdued for most of the night and as the election results started trickling in, the crowd become noticeable quieter.

On his decision to cast his vote for former CIA Director David Petraeus, Kirk had earlier in the day said he wanted to “set an example by voting for someone who was honorable, a military leader, successful and much better than Trump or Clinton.”

The elections results were not entirely unexpected as most polls showed Duckworth comfortably ahead some time before election day. With less than a week to go before the election, statewide polls showed Kirk trailing the Democrat by as many as 18 percentage points.

A Loras College poll, which was released November 1, had Duckworth with an almost unsurmountable advantage in Chicago (62 percent to 17 percent) while the two are in a statistical dead heat (38 percent to 36 percent) in the city’s suburbs and the rest of the state.

On the eve of the vote, the Chicago-based RealClearPolitics, a political news and polling data aggregator, showed Duckworth leading by an average of 13 points in the waning days of an often ugly campaign season, that has seen Kirk forced to apologize after he mocked Duckworth’s ancestry during a televised debate.

Duckworth, a former Army pilot, was touting her father’s military service in World War II, pointing out that she was a member of Daughters of the American Revolution when Kirk quipped: “I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.”

Democrats pounced on the remark with Hillary Clinton blasting Kirk in a tweet that read “it’s really not that hard to grasp” in apparent reference to the role of the Daughters of the American Revolution, a membership organization for women directly descended from people involved in the American war for independence.

Duckworth was born in Thailand to a U.S. Marine and a Thai mother of Chinese descent and moved to the U.S. as a teen. During the debate, she said members of her family on her father’s side had served in the military since the Revolution, which led to Kirk’s retort.

Duckworth’s campaign was boosted by Kirk’s early missteps in endorsing, and then disavowing Donald Trump.

Kirk had previously endorsed Trump but rescinded his endorsement once Trump made racially sensitive comments towards U.S. District Court Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the judge presiding over the case against Trump University, where former students are alleging fraudulent claims.

Trump’s campaign was quick to distance itself from Kirk, but not from his remarks about Duckworth’s heritage during the candidates’ debate. Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway tweeted: “The same Mark Kirk that unendorsed his party’s presidential nominee and called him out in paid ads? Gotcha. Good luck.”

Kirk’s campaign took another wrong turn several days after the debate, when he was unendorsed by two powerful advocacy groups: Americans for Responsible Solutions (ARS)– which fights for stronger gun laws, and Human Rights Campaign (HRC) –which advocates for LGBT rights.

Ironically, both groups had initially cited the need to have a Republican supporter in the Senate over a Democrat and had bypassed Duckworth in their endorsements.

At that time HRC called Kirk, “ a strong supporter of our cause” while ARS threw its weight behind him because he –in defiance of his party – supported a gun bill that was meant to keep felons, domestic abusers, and others who posed a risk to the public from being able to make online gun purchases. The bill failed after coming under overwhelming fire from gun lobby groups like the NRA and their allies in the Senate.

It was unclear what the uncoupling did to sway Kirk’s supporters, most of whom are from rural parts of the state with strong pro-gun sentiments and a wariness for social issues like LGBT rights.

“I do not support Hillary Clinton, and I told the public that I did not support Donald Trump, either. I think he’s too bigoted and racist for the Land of Lincoln,” Kirk said on the air.

In 2012, Kirk suffered an ischemic stroke and underwent surgery to relieve swelling in his brain before returning to Capitol Hill the following year.

Questions about his health became a campaign staple and his campaign denied claims that it was withholding his medical records.

He was widely seen as the most vulnerable Republican running for re-election.

Duckworth is a Purple Heart recipient who has been in the U.S. Congress since 2013. While deployed to Iraq as part of the Illinois National Guard, the Black Hawk helicopter she was co-piloting was hit by ground fire and she lost both her legs and partial use of her right arm.

U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) introducing newly elected U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth before she gives her victory speech. Nov. 8, 2016. (Guy King/MEDILL)