Two Military Vets Set Sights on Illinois Senate Seat

Two Military Vets Set Sights on Illinois Senate Seat
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The 2016 Illinois Senate election is expected to be one of the most closely watched, highly contested races in the nation, made even more interesting by an unusual wrinkle of commonality between the two leading candidates: they share nearly a half a century of military service.

The race will likely pit Republican incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk, a former Navy intelligence officer who spent 24 years in the reserves before retiring in 2013 as a commander, against Democratic Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, a former Army helicopter pilot and Purple Heart recipient who spent 23 years in the reserves, retiring as a lieutenant colonel last year.

A Kirk-Duckworth matchup isn’t yet a guarantee, as former Republican Rep. Joe Walsh is considering mounting a bid to unseat Kirk, and several candidates are considering running against Duckworth. But a Walsh victory over Kirk is unlikely, say many following the race, and some of the top potential Democratic challengers are sitting this one out, calling Duckworth a strong candidate. 

What is certain is that the Illinois contest will be one of the most important and expensive Senate races next year – Kirk has raised more than $1 million already in 2015 and has nearly $3 million in cash on hand, while Duckworth has raised more than $500,000 in a shortened time frame and has $1.5 million on hand, according to the Chicago Sun-Times.

Republicans currently hold a four-seat majority in the Senate, but must defend 24 seats in 2016, compared to just 10 for Democrats. Kirk was elected by two percentage points in the Republican wave of 2010, and Democrats have pinpointed his seat as a key opportunity in their effort to retake the Senate.

Military Service

Distinguished military service is a major part of both candidates’ histories, and, though Election Day 2016 is 18 months away, it will likely play a significant role in the shaping of their narratives as the nascent campaigns get started.  

Duckworth’s story is well known: She was deployed to Iraq in 2004 as a helicopter pilot. In November of that year, her copter was shot down and she lost both legs and partial use of one of her arms. Soon after her service ended, she made her first bid for Congress, losing to Peter Roskam in 2006. Then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich tapped her to run the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs, and three years later, President Obama named her as an assistant secretary at the Veterans Administration, where she worked until running for Congress again in 2012, this time succeeding.

In just over two years in the House, Duckworth has focused on veterans’ issues, sponsoring bills to extend maternity leave for mothers in the military and to ensure that vets’ military training and education transfers to civilian certifications. She also co-sponsored veterans’ suicide prevention legislation that became law. Kirk co-sponsored that legislation in the Senate.

Kirk served as an intelligence officer during the U.S. bombing of Kosovo in the 1990s and made multiple weeks-long trips to Afghanistan in the 2000s as a congressman. During his run for Senate in 2010, an Associated Press story described Kirk as an exceptional officer entrusted with vital, sensitive duties. His work was important but not glamorous.”

In his 15 years service in Congress – a decade in the House before being elected to the Senate in 2010 – Kirk has established himself as a social moderate and fiscal conservative. Just four years into his first Senate term, Kirk has become one of his party’s leading voices on Iran, sponsoring a number of bills aimed at halting that country’s nuclear program, including legislation this year that would immediately re-impose economic sanctions on Iran if negotiations to limit their nuclear program don’t end in a deal.

But he also carries baggage. In his 2010 campaign for Senate, he made misstatements about his service record, including claiming he’d won an award he hadn’t.  Recent controversial statements he’s made have also landed him in hot water.

Recently, Kirk and Duckworth traded barbs on Iran policy, Kirk’s area of expertise. Kirk signed on to a controversial letter penned by Sen. Tom Cotton last month to Iranian leaders criticizing the Obama administration’s Iran negotiations. Not long after announcing her Senate campaign, Duckworth blasted the letter, and Kirk’s support, as “irresponsible.”

Kirk stood by his signature, releasing a statement in response to the letter further criticizing the administration’s negotiations.

“There is no Constitutional authority granting a president unilateral power to repeal American law,” Kirk said. “Sanctions should not be weakened until Iran stops its nuclear weapons program, stops supporting and exporting terrorism, stops aggression against its neighbors, stops egregious human rights abuses, and stops threatening to annihilate Israel.”

Strengths, Vulnerabilities

In recent months, Kirk has been criticized for his heated rhetoric on a number of contentious issues. During the congressional standoff over Department of Homeland Security funding in February, Kirk said coffins should be placed outside Democratic lawmakers’ offices if there were a terrorist attack while the department was shut down. He also compared the U.S. negotiations with Iran to British appeasement of Nazi Germany.

In 2010, his campaign was rocked by accusations that he had exaggerated his service record. Kirk falsely claimed that he had been named the Navy Intelligence Officer of the Year, when in reality his unit had won a separate award. He also had to retract claims that he had served in Iraq during the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, when in reality he served in on U.S. soil during that invasion. Kirk also told the Chicago Tribune assertions that he came under fire in Iraq in 2000 might not have been accurate.

The Chicago Tribune reported that summer, several months before the 2010 election, that Kirk apologized for the incidents in a meeting with its editorial board, calling them “mistakes.”

“When you're in this environment, you should probably follow a strict policy of only talking about what is absolutely documented,” Kirk told the Tribune.

Duckworth has avoided controversy, for the most part. During her 2012 run for Congress, incumbent Rep. Joe Walsh seemed to imply that Duckworth wasn’t a military hero because she made it so central to her campaign. He then walked back the statement, saying that he considers her a hero, but reiterated criticism over the amount of time Duckworth talks about her service.

Republicans have also criticized Duckworth for getting her start at the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs thanks to an appointment from disgraced former Gov. Blagojevich, who is in prison on corruption charges.

Likely Strategies for 2016

When asked about the possibility that 2010 attacks against Kirk’s record could be repeated, a Kirk aide said, “Frankly, we haven’t really begun to think about what the incoming attacks are going to be right now; we’ve been really focused on the dealings with Iran right now and his work in the Senate.”

A Democratic consultant close to the Duckworth campaign had a similar response: “I think we’re going to worry about our message and I’ll let others speculate about that.”

But others predict it will be a no-holds-barred campaign.

“Nothing is going to be easy, and nothing is going to be taken for granted in 2016, but in 2010 Mark Kirk barely won against a candidate that had a number of issues and ran a lackluster campaign,” a national Democrat told RCP. “If you look at the kinds of things Mark Kirk has been saying and doing, he’s going to have a lot of problems defending his record in 2016.”

Jon Soltz, who served in Iraq and is chairman of the left-leaning VoteVets organization, didn’t shy away from the group’s potential involvement in the race. Soltz said he is personally invested in Duckworth’s career and called this the most important election his organization has ever been part of.

“We are going to play, and we like to play offense,” Soltz told RCP. “And in most of our Senate races, we go after people.”

Soltz said Kirk would be “insane” to try to compare military records with Duckworth.

“That might have worked against who he ran against in 2010, but that’s not going to work against Congresswoman Duckworth, and if he thinks he can go pound for pound with her on it, that’s a losing model for them,” Soltz said.

Kirk supporters, however, say that while it’s likely to be a competitive race, Kirk has been there before and proven he’s up to the task.

“We’re going to fight hard and we’re going to make sure, Republicans are going to make sure, that everybody knows Senator Kirk’s accomplishments and that he’s an independent voice,” a Republican operative told RCP. “He’s proven that he can win close races and he’s proven that he’s a winner in the past.”

A Kirk aide added:  “During his term in the Senate, he’s delivered for every corner of the state and he’s visited every corner of the state, and I think those personal interactions will mean a lot to the voters and his ability to deliver for them in the Senate.”

Some have suggested that because both candidates have served in the military, mutual respect might make it more difficult for them to attack each other.

But Dan Caldwell, legislative and political director at Concerned Veterans for America, said it’s equally possible that the race will devolve into negativity.

“The military service in some ways will cancel each other out and it also, I think, could have a tendency to make the campaign more vicious because they will possibly nitpick at each other’s military service,” Caldwell said.

He added that if the campaigns do become negative on military issues or backgrounds, it’s likely to be started by outside groups, specifically mentioning VoteVets.

The Deciding Factors

Ultimately, whether the campaign turns negative, it seems clear that the race will be hard fought and highly publicized. Paul Green, a political science professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, said he doesn’t expect the military backgrounds of either candidate to swing the race. 

“They’re both excellent campaigners,” Green said. “I think their military records will simply be part of their overall appeal. I don’t think either one of them has the edge on their campaign skills.”

Dick Simpson, a political science professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago and former Chicago alderman, said likability and trustworthiness carry more weight than military service.

 “Their military record is part of establishing that this is someone at least on foreign policy you can trust because they’ve made sacrifices serving their country before,” Simpson said. He added that he thinks because of her injuries, Duckworth’s military story gives her more of a lift with voters. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for Kirk to talk about his own service.

“I expect him to try and play it up to neutralize the fact that she has this background,” Simpson said.

What this race will come down to then – barring a scandal or a number of other surprises that can upend a campaign – is less about the candidates’ backgrounds than it is about their priorities, their voting records, national and world events in the 18 months leading up to Election Day – and, as always, the economy.

“I think they both should be proud of their service, but I think that when voters are determining what’s best for their families, what’s best for the future of the country, they’re going to look at where the candidates stand on the issues,” a Republican operative told RCP.

A Democratic consultant had a similar sentiment. Despite everything discussed about military records and foreign affairs, the consultant said whatever issue grabs national attention in the final months of the campaign will take center stage, along with the economy.

“I think in the end this is a campaign about the economic future of the people in Illinois,” the consultant said. “This is going to come down to pocketbook issues.”


James Arkin is a congressional reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @JamesArkin.

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