Jim Dey: Atop Dems' hit list, Kirk is running hard

Jim Dey: Atop Dems' hit list, Kirk is running hard

If anyone needed evidence that Illinois Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk is walking a political tightrope in his quest for re-election, last week's events provided it in spades.

On Thursday, an angry Donald Trump, the Republicans' presumed presidential nominee, characterized Kirk as a "loser" for not supporting his campaign for the White House. In response to Trump's criticism of Kirk, the campaign of Kirk's Democratic opponent, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, blasted Kirk again for not attending Trump's Washington strategy session so that Trump could insult him to his face.

"Mark Kirk, who calls himself an 'independent leader,' was in hiding. Kirk's cynical dance with Trump, supporting him at first and disavowing him after the polls in Illinois went south, is beyond silly, as is his campaign," said Matt McGrath, Duckworth's deputy campaign manager.

Some might say Kirk can't win for losing. Then again, his path to victory in November lies in distancing himself from Trump in a way that makes him more appealing to the independents and Democrats he needs to win a second term in the Senate.

It's a delicate balancing act that veteran political analysts say Kirk will have difficulty pulling off.

Jennifer Duffy, senior editor of Cook's Political Report, has identified six Republican-held Senate seats up for grabs in November and characterizes Kirk as the "most vulnerable."

"His problems haven't changed," said Duffy, who follows Senate races for Cook. "He's still a Republican running in a very blue (Democratic) state in a presidential election year."

Republicans currently hold a 54-46 margin in the U.S. Senate, and, depending on how the close races come out, majority control could shift to the Democrats.

Democrats hold 10 seats up for election in November while the GOP controls 24.

Duffy said just one Democrat-controlled seat — the one in Nevada where Democratic Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring — could go Republican. She said the GOP seats in play are in Florida, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Illinois. Another potentially close race Duffy said is leaning Republican is in North Carolina, where U.S. Sen. Richard Burr is seeking re-election.

Illinois is ground zero for Democratic efforts to make their move on the Senate. But the Kirk campaign insists their man will run strong.

Kirk campaign manager Kevin Artl notes that his candidate has a history of attracting independent and Democratic votes. He did that first as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the Chicago area and then six years ago when he ran for the Senate, narrowly defeating Democratic state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias.

Artl characterized the race as "statistically tied" and a "dead heat"

Sensing a 1964 Goldwater-type electoral debacle, Democrats are trying to tie all Republican candidates to Trump. They're hoping voters will reject them from the top to the bottom of the ballot.

Duckworth, 48, is following that playbook. She has focused much of her fire on Trump and Kirk, portraying them as inextricable.

The 56-year-old Kirk, who was born in Champaign, initially indicated he would support Trump as the GOP presidential nominee. That led to Duckworth characterizing him as a "Trump twin."

Kirk, however, withdrew his endorsement of Trump after the multibillionaire accused a federal judge in Indiana of bias because the judge is of Mexican descent.

"What took so long? ... Tammy Duckworth called Senator Kirk's silence in the face of Trump's bigotry a betrayal, and we're standing by our statement," her campaign responded after Kirk withdrew the endorsement.

Two, however, can play that game. The Kirk campaign has blasted Duckworth for her political loyalty to now-imprisoned former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich.

Duckworth worked for Blagojevich from 2006 to 2009 as the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affair and continued to support him as corruption investigations swirled around him.

The Kirk campaign also has hit her for a whisteblower lawsuit filed against her by former employees who alleged they were punished for reporting misconduct. That lawsuit was recently settled out of court.

Kirk has touted his independence as a quality that has served Illinois well in the Senate. His supporters cite his willingness to meet with President Obama's Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland and vote for his confirmation.

Kirk and Duckworth have substantial differences on the issues. He was a vigorous opponent of Obama's nuclear deal with Iran while she was among its enthusiastic supporters. Duckworth also has expressed support for bringing Syrian refugees into the U.S, while Kirk has called for a halt while the federal government sorts out terror-related issues.

Kirk's independent stance, however, cuts both ways. While attractive to some Democrats, he's rankled Republicans who do not share Kirk's liberal tendencies. He needs to keep irritated Republicans while collecting persuadable Democrats and independents.

Whatever his strategy, there is no dispute that Kirk is running on tougher turf than he did in 2010. Democrats enjoy higher turnout in presidential elections years, to the point that Duffy said that Duckworth's built-in party advantage plus the Trump factor may be too much for Kirk to overcome.

Campaign manager Artl conceded part of Duffy's point, acknowledging that "this is a very unique election cycle." But he said Kirk is running hard and intends to win.

"Voters are responding well to Mark," Artl said.

Jim Dey can be reached by email at jdey@news-gazette.com or at 217-351-5369.

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