Duckworth opens lead as Kirk falters in crucial final stage of senate race

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk R-Ill. (left), and U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth D-Ill. (right) face off Nov. 8th in general election. (Photos used from candidates’ campaign websites)

By Guy-Lee King and Duke Omara

After a disastrous second debate performance in his race against Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Republican Mark Kirk’s (R-IL) campaign is in trouble as he struggles to hit the reset button in a nationally watched race that may hold the key to control of the U.S. Senate.

With less than a week to go before election night, statewide polls show Kirk trailing the Democrat by as many as 18 percentage points. The Loras College poll, which was released November 1, has 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.

The Chicago-based RealClearPolitics, a political news and polling data aggregator, shows 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.

During the 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.

In another sign of the incumbent’s troubles,  Donald Trump’s campaign was quick to distance itself from Kirk after the debate, but it did not condemn his remarks about Duckworth. 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 bad week took another wrong turn when several days after the debate, he too 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.

By press time , it was not clear if the groups had transferred their support to Duckworth. It was even less clear what the uncoupling would do 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.

As both campaigns head full tilt for the finish line, Duckworth is sitting on a substantial war chest compared to her opponent. With more than $4 million on hand compared to Kirk’s $1.4 million, the next few days will likely see a blitz of pro-Duckworth advertisements as she pushes to keep her momentum. Both campaigns have so far raised roughly the same amounts, at $14 million to $12 million for Duckworth and Kirk respectively.

Kirk’s latest troubles are emblematic of a campaign that has been both confusing and confounding to his supporters and a delight to his critics.

Kirk had previously endorsed Trump but rescinded his endorsement once Trump made racially offensive 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. The junior senator appeared on Chicago’s WLS-AM 890 to answer the radio host “Big” John Howell’s question: if he thinks Clinton is a better fit for the presidency than Trump.

“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.

Later, he backtracked once again and said he would write in former CIA director U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, who pleaded guilty to mishandling classified information. He has since backtracked on that claim too.

Duckworth has used Kirk’s statements to tie him to Trump who is losing the state by double digits.

“It’s not about the values for Mark Kirk. If it were, he would have denounced Donald Trump a long time ago and not said he was looking forward to becoming a conservative adviser to Donald Trump,” Duckworth told the Chicago Tribune.

Kirk , a former U.S. congressman, has been in the U.S. Senate since 2010. In 2012, he 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 have been a campaign staple but his campaign has denied claims that he is incapable of meeting the job’s demands.

He is 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.

She is currently embroiled in a 7-year-old workplace retaliation lawsuit that alleges she harassed employees of a VA facility after they lodged complaints against their boss.

The candidates will meet again on Nov. 4 for a final televised debate sponsored in part by Univision, a Spanish language TV station, and the League of Women Voters of Illinois. This will probably be the last chance for Kirk to move the needle of voter misgivings before the elections.

Photo at top: U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk R-Ill. (left), and U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth D-Ill. (right) face off Nov. 8th in general election. (Photos used from candidates’ campaign websites)