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updated: 11/6/2016 8:06 AM

Kirk, Duckworth race key to Senate control

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  • Democrat Tammy Duckworth, left, and Republican Mark Kirk are vying for U.S. Senate.

    Democrat Tammy Duckworth, left, and Republican Mark Kirk are vying for U.S. Senate.

 
 

Two suburban lawmakers with nationally known personal stories of recovery square off at the polls Tuesday in a closely watched race that will help determine which party has control of the U.S. Senate in 2017.

Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and his challenger, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, have spent months bitterly at odds yet share some commonalities both in their capacity as veterans and through their stories of grueling physical recoveries -- Kirk's from a stroke in 2012, and Duckworth's from the loss of her legs in 2004 after her U.S. Army helicopter came under enemy fire in the Iraq War.

The race is key for both political parties in the fight for control of the Senate, where the GOP has a four-seat majority.

Kirk was elected to a 6-year term in 2010 after serving five terms as a congressman for the North suburban 10th District.

A former Naval reservist from Highland Park, he was just completing his first year as a senator when an ischemic stroke struck, causing partial paralysis on his left side and vision loss in his left eye. He returned to the Senate a year later with a climb up the U.S. Capitol steps while members of Congress from across the country looked on, including Duckworth, standing on two prosthetic legs.

Kirk bills himself as a fiscal conservative and social moderate, supporting abortion rights and climate change legislation, and breaking ranks with fellow Republicans to meet with President Barack Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Merrick Garland, a graduate of Niles West High School in Skokie.

Kirk says he's a moderate who can work with both sides. He has been outspoken in his opposition to GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump and says he won't vote for the business tycoon.

After recent revelations of a recorded conversation where Trump bragged about groping and trying to have sex with women, Kirk said on Twitter that Trump was a "malignant clown -- unprepared and unfit to be president of the United States."

Duckworth, of Hoffman Estates, was recruited to run for Congress in 2006 by U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin of Springfield and was selected by the Democratic Party to give speeches at both the 2012 and 2016 national conventions.

Duckworth lost in 2006 to Rep. Peter Roskam, a Wheaton Republican who later rose into House Republican leadership. Duckworth first won her 8th Congressional District seat in the House by defeating conservative firebrand Joe Walsh in 2012. She won re-election two years later over Republican Larry Kaifesh. In her bid for Senate, Duckworth has placed a focus on small business issues and has highlighted her cosponsorship of the Violence Against Women Act, which provides federal funding for both the prosecution and investigation of crimes against women.

She says a polarized political climate can be eased by improving the economy locally.

"Some of the core issues that are bringing the 'mad as hell' emotion up is people hear that the economy is improving but they don't see it in their hometowns," Duckworth told the Daily Herald editorial board.

Veterans issues have also become a key sticking point, as both candidates claim they have the experience that makes them uniquely qualified to serve veterans.

Kirk retired in 2013 as a commander in the U.S. Naval Reserves.

Duckworth retired in 2014 from the Illinois Army National Guard.

Kirk has accused Duckworth, former assistant secretary in the United States Department of Veterans Affairs and former head of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs, of "putting political ambition before veterans" in a recent commercial.

Duckworth has attacked Kirk for past exaggerations of his military record.

In recent days, controversial comments Kirk made prompted the withdrawal of two endorsements that Kirk has pointed to as indicators of his independence.

Kirk apologized last week for comments about Duckworth's immigrant background and her family's military service he made during a debate in central Illinois. Duckworth said during a debate that her family has "served this nation in uniform going back to the Revolution." Kirk responded that he'd forgotten the congresswoman's "parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington."

Duckworth's mother is of Chinese descent, born in Thailand. Duckworth, born in Bangkok, says her father first went to Southeast Asia while serving with the Marines in Vietnam.

The Human Rights Campaign, a gay-rights group, and Americans for Responsible Solutions both cited the remarks in withdrawing endorsements for Kirk.

• Daily Herald news services contributed to this report.