Can Duckworth clear Illinois field?
© Greg Nash

Rep. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthDems punch back over GOP holdup of Biden SBA nominee Top Republican: General told senators he opposed Afghanistan withdrawal Democrats brace for battle on Biden's .5 trillion spending plan MORE (D-Ill.) may scare off any opposition if she decides to challenge Sen. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkDuckworth announces reelection bid Brave new world: Why we need a Senate Human Rights Commission  Senate majority battle snags Biden Cabinet hopefuls MORE (R-Ill.) in 2016. 

“Tammy clears the field. I don’t think anyone wants to risk their careers on taking her on,” said one Illinois Democrat who is not affiliated with any of the potential candidates.

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Although her official activities have been limited over the past few months following the December birth of her first child, the 46-year-old new mom has still managed to touch base with some powerful Democrats back at home and in Washington, many of whom are hoping they can avoid a costly primary in the top-targeted race. 

The congresswoman and Iraq War veteran has talked with Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) about the potential campaign, as well as with EMILY’s List, the powerful pro-abortion rights group that has backed her in previous races. Her staff has also been in touch with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee as she eyes a possible run.

Duckworth told the Chicago Tribune on Monday that she was “going to explore the possibility,” but sources close to her say she’s doing more than that. 

Democrats caution she hasn’t made up her mind — and probably won’t for at least a month — but most expect her to jump into the fray.

“Tammy is certainly considering a run,” said Lauren Beth Gash, a state Democratic operative. “She’s very serious about it.”

Other Illinois Democrats mulling runs include Reps. Cheri Bustos and Bill Foster, and state Sen. Kwame Raoul. Foster and his ex-wife even sat down with the Chicago Sun-Times last week to dispel concerns stemming from their 1996 divorce, a move many took to be a first step toward a Senate bid.

But Land of Lincoln Democrats doubt Duckworth would be challenged, entering the race with heavy establishment support and a proven fundraising record.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, who would have been formidable, is once again likely to take a pass. Her office didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Bustos and Duckworth have a good working relationship, and Bustos is also close to Durbin. The Democratic leader was a friend of her father’s and she babysat his children as a teenager. 

Now, sources say Durbin is hoping to help the party avoid a contested and divisive primary and plans to try to “mediate” any talks between potential hopefuls.

A source close to Bustos reiterated, however, she “isn’t closing the door on any opportunity that may help her best advocate for the people of her region of Illinois,” and said while she has “great respect and admiration for Rep. Duckworth … her decision will come down to where she feels like she can best advocate for the people of her District.”

National and state Democrats say Duckworth’s background as a war veteran who lost both legs helps to undercut some of Kirk’s biggest advantages.

“A lot of us view her as the only one who could take out Kirk,” said one top state Democrat.

While she was somewhat lackluster in her first unsuccessful House run in 2006, those who have known her a long time say she has vastly improved since then. 

Gash said she was impressed by Duckworth’s “fiery” speech at a recent fundraiser for her organization, the 10th District Congressional Democrats.

“Less than a month away from giving birth, she appeared to be quite strong. ... She was very vibrant, and she chose to stand up the whole time. We were kind of surprised. She was fired up, she was on and she was incredible,” Gash said. “In her very first race she didn’t seem as comfortable with people and talking to people. She was a bit too modest as a candidate. She seemed shyer. She isn’t now, by any means.”

Still, some fret about Duckworth’s quality and admit that no one is guaranteed a win against a wily and hard-working Kirk.

“Tammy has a great profile. Is she the strongest in policy, the most qualified or the strongest campaigner? In my opinion not so much,” said one Illinois Democrat. “But she has the profile to beat Mark Kirk. She neutralizes a lot of his strengths as a veteran with a disability.”

Kirk told The Hill in December that he was running “come hell or high water,” and took aim at Duckworth, warning the Democrat that running and losing to him would be “a very sad ending to a bright career.” But Kirk’s office declined to weigh in on Duckworth on Tuesday.

“Senator Mark Kirk is an independent voice for Illinois and is proud of his bipartisan record of achievement in the United States Senate,” Kirk spokeswoman Alyssa McCurley said via email. “While he looks forward to a vigorous campaign, the Senator believes there will be plenty of time for politics, and he is focused on fighting for veterans who have not received the treatment and respect they have earned from our government, as well as advocating for policies that encourage economic growth and job creation.”