Kirk on questioning Duckworth's American heritage: 'I’m absolutely not a racist'
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Vulnerable Sen. Mark KirkMark KirkHigh stakes as Trump heads to Hill Five things to watch for at Trump-Senate GOP meeting Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns MORE (R-Ill.) opened up the Illinois Senate debate with an apology to Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth for questioning her American heritage last week, adding later that he is “absolutely” not a racist.

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“I would like to take this moment to thank Tammy for accepting my apology when I disparaged her family’s admirable military record,” Kirk said in his opening remarks at Friday night’s debate. 

“I think that having lost two legs in the Iraq War, you are to be honored and the way we repay that debt is by honoring your service, especially of that of you and your family.”

At last week’s Senate debate, the candidates were asked about their long-term plans in the Middle East. Duckworth, who is Asian American, touted her family’s military service that dates back to the American Revolution.

"I am a daughter of the American Revolution," Duckworth said last week. "I have bled for this nation."

Kirk, considered the most vulnerable GOP senator up for reelection, drew heavy criticism for his response: "I forgot that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington."

The following day, the GOP senator offered an apology over Twitter, calling Duckworth “an American hero.”

Later in Friday night’s debate, one of the moderators addressed the comment and noted that Kirk’s comment has been interpreted by some as racist. Kirk pushed back on that characterization and noted his work with the African-American community. 

“I’m absolutely not a racist,” Kirk said. “I would say I already offered an apology to Tammy and she accepted.”

When the moderator continued to press him and asked what he was thinking for making the comment, Kirk responded, “I wasn’t thinking. It was a mistake on my part.”

Duckworth said she accepts Kirk’s apology and went through a laundry list of previous gaffes Kirk has made, including recently calling President Obama “a drug dealer in chief” over the administration’s $400 million Iran payment and saying last year that people “drive faster” through African-American neighborhoods.

“The problem is that he often says things he doesn’t think through,” Duckworth said. “That is not acceptable language coming from a United States senator.”

Duckworth has been the overwhelmingly favorite in a seat that was carried handily by Obama in 2008 and 2012. RealClearPolitics polling average has the Illinois Democrat up by double digits.