Illinois US Senator Mark Kirk may be the most vulnerable Republican senator running for re-election in 2016. His contentious relationship with his party highlights the frustration many Illinoisans have over the electoral options in this race. Yet Kirk’s own words in a debate further hurt his chances and illustrated the consequence of having few voices on stage.
Kirk and his Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, last Thursday debated in Springfield, Illinois. After Duckworth described herself as a “daughter of the American Revolution,” Kirk responded:
“I had forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington.”
Kirk later apologized, but Democrats and social media reacted swiftly. Many accused Kirk of racism and besmirching Duckworth’s Thai heritage.
Silence met Kirk’s retort before the moderator moved on to the next question.
The match-up was only the year’s first public debate in the Illinois Senate race. With only two candidates appearing on the stage, the exchange implied that there are only two choices in Illinois this year.
However, Kent McMillen of the Libertarian Party achieved ballot access. The Illinois Libertarian Party filed 53,000 signatures, more than twice the 25,000 required for a third party to get him on the ballot. Republicans and Democrats only needed 5,000 signatures.
The Green Party’s Scott Summers will also appear on the ballot. He lost a ballot petition fight two years ago to enter the gubernatorial race. The Green and Libertarian Parties are the only two other official U.S. Senate options for Illinois voters in 2016. Other candidates and parties were less fortunate.
Chad Koppie, a perennial candidate of the Constitution Party is running a write-in campaign. Chris Aguayo of the Veterans Party of America, a self-described centrist and constitutionalist, is also running as a write-in candidate. Aguayo advocates not only for veterans but also term limits.
However, none of these other candidates appeared on the debate stage that night or at any other stage in the race for Illinois’ US Senate seat.
Mark Kirk is widely seen as among the more liberal Republicans in the Senate. His pro-choice, gun control, and immigration policies have long been a source of consternation for Illinois conservatives and risk depressing their turnout on November 8. The presence of other candidates could have demonstrated to conservatives and other voters in Illinois that there are additional options.
James Marter, a challenger with neither name recognition nor money compared to his opponent, received nearly 30% of the vote against Kirk in this March’s primary. Marter’s showing exposed Illinois conservatives’ disaffection with Kirk.
No major poll in shows Illinois US Senator Mark Kirk defeating Tammy Duckworth. Many of those polls show that up to 20% of voters remain undecided. Even in a state as favorable to Democrats as Illinois, few grant Duckworth 50% or more of the vote. Yet last week’s debate exposed the consequence of limiting the number of choices for office amid the general dissatisfaction with both major candidates.