Mark Kirk is your most vulnerable senator of 2016

Greg Nash

The state of Illinois has produced some U.S. senators whose names and accomplishments have commended great prominence and national attention. Everett McKinley Dirksen was the Senate minority leader in the 1960s. His vote for and leadership of the Republican Party during that time was a key component in passing the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964.

{mosads}Dirksen was quite a character, and his physical appearance was quite distinctive. My good friend Bob Friedman often said Dirksen “combed his hair with a fan.” His voice and speaking style were most often described as “sonorous.” When you observed Dirksen orating on the Senate floor or at one of his frequent press conferences, one imagined him as a robed figure addressing the Roman Senate.

He was a moderate who won both sides of the aisle and was open to all views. In no way was he a strict ideologue. Most of all, he sought to be respected for his skills as a consummate legislator. (A testament to his influence is the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, one of three Senate buildings named after former senators. The others are named after Richard Russell, Democrat of Georgia and Philip Hart, Democrat of Michigan.)

Sen. Paul Simon (D) was an outspoken and fierce liberal. He was a former small-town newspaperman who first came to fame exposing the unethical practices of his colleagues in the Illinois state legislature. Bow-tied and unfailingly friendly and decent, he ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 1988 and attracted a devoted following of good-government types who were passionately committed to him and his political idealism.

Simon the downstate Democrat first won election to the Senate by beating an incumbent moderate Republican, Charles Percy, in 1984. Percy was a boy-wonder business executive who was a CEO at age 30. A University of Chicago graduate, he beat his former economics professor, Sen. Paul Douglas (D), in 1966.

Douglas himself had first been elected to the Senate in 1948. The fabled Chicago boss Jake Arvey had slated Douglas for Senate and Adlai Stevenson for governor. Douglas was a champion for the consumer and an independent and forceful voice for all progressive causes.

What these four senators had in common was that they were all politicians of substance. These two Republicans and two Democrats were taken seriously and had national reputations. (It also should be noted that President Obama was elected to the Senate from Illinois in 2004).)

Today, the most vulnerable Republican running for reelection is the junior senator from Illinois, Mark Kirk, who is very much in the Percy Republican mold. In fact, he grew up in the same very tony Chicago suburb — Kenilworth — from which Percy hailed. That North Shore background helped his climb up the political ladder.

Kirk worked on the Hill for Rep. John Porter (R) and then succeeded him in the house. He showed a streak of political independence when he publicly criticized 2008 Republican nominee John McCain for choosing Sarah Palin as a running mate. On social issues, he’s even a liberal, supporting abortion rights (and later, in the Senate, same-sex marriage).

In 2010, Kirk had the good fortune to face a deeply flawed Democratic opponent, Alexi Giannoulias. As state treasurer, Giannoulias had previously won statewide, and had the active and vigorous personal support of Obama, having been a basketball-playing buddy of the president. But Giannoulias had a boatload of business-related difficulties: His family’s bank had been taken over by federal regulators and declared insolvent. Kirk raised $14 million, but still only won by 59,000 votes (48 percent to Giannoulias’s 46 percent).

(Tragically, Kirk had a stroke in January 2012. He is still partially paralyzed, but his cognitive functioning is intact.)

Kirk won his Senate seat in a midterm election, but Illinois is considered a strong blue state in presidential years. Since 1992, the state has gone for the Democratic candidate for president by wide margins. In 2008, Obama won with 62 percent; in 2012, he won 58 percent. Gore and Kerry in 2000 and 2004, respectively, both carried the state with a healthy 55 percent. And aside from 2016 being a presidential year, the Democrats have a scandal-free candidate with a compelling life story: Tammy Duckworth.

Duckworth represents the northwest suburbs of Chicago in the House of Representatives. A veteran, she was one of the first women in the Army to fly combat missions in the Iraq War. As a co-pilot, her helicopter was hit, causing massive injuries and leaving her a double amputee.

She initially ran for the House in 2006, but lost in a close race to Republican Peter Roskam. She then went on to become an assistant secretary in the Veteran Affairs Department. In 2012, in a newly redrawn, different district favoring Democrats, she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives by beating Republican incumbent Joe Walsh.

In an effort to demonstrate that he is flexible and open-minded and not beholden to the Republican Senate leadership, Kirk was the first Republican senator to meet with Merrick Garland, Obama’s nominee for the Supreme Court vacancy. He is positioning himself so that he would be acceptable to independents and in no way wants to be perceived as a captive of the right-wing of his party. (Although Kirk has said he would support Donald Trump if he is the Republican nominee.)

In my opinion, though, Kirk is Chuck Percy all over again. That’s good for awhile, but when you face an attractive opponent in a presidential year in Illinois and you are a Republican, being a moderate just isn’t enough. Duckworth should win and win easily. The Democrats are counting on this one to be in the bag on their way to once again being in the majority in the U.S. Senate.

This piece has been corrected on Friday, May 20, 2016 at 10:36 a.m.

Plotkin is a political analyst, a contributor to the BBC on American politics and a columnist for The Georgetowner.

Tags 2016 Senate elections Donald Trump Illinois John McCain Mark Kirk
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