CHICAGO — Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth unseated Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk on Tuesday, delivering a win that her party is banking on as it attempts to retake control of the Senate and becoming the second woman to represent Illinois in the chamber.
Kirk worked for months to convince voters that he's independent of his party by criticizing GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump as "racist" and "delusional" and talking up his record of breaking from Republicans on issues such as gun control and gay marriage.
Kirk also hurt his own campaign with a series of controversial statements. He had to apologize to Duckworth last month after mocking her immigrant background — she was born in Bangkok to a Chinese-Thai mother and American father — and her family's military history during a debate. Two organizations withdrew their endorsements, calling the remarks racist.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., speaks in his office in Chicago on June 9, 2014. Kirk is running for re-election in 2016.
Photo Credit: M. Spencer Green/AP
That was enough to persuade Charles Hawley, a psychiatrist from the central Illinois town of Mahomet, to cast his ballot for Duckworth instead of Kirk.
"It just sort of stuck with me," the 49-year-old said just after voting at Lake of the Woods County Park in Mahomet, about 10 miles west of Champaign. "It was hard to get past."
Kirk also had apologized for referring to South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who's unmarried, as a "bro with no ho," and was criticized for saying President Barack Obama was acting like "the drug dealer in chief" when his administration delivered $400 million cash to Iran contingent on the release of American prisoners.
Duckworth will be the second woman to serve Illinois in the U.S. Senate. Carol Moseley Braun, elected in 1992, was the first.
Duckworth campaigned on a pledge to help middle- and working-class families, often sharing her own compelling personal story. The daughter of an immigrant, she said her family struggled to get by and had to use food stamps after her father lost his job. In 2004 she lost both legs when the helicopter she was co-piloting was shot down in Iraq while she was deployed with the Illinois National Guard.
She served as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs after losing her first bid for Congress in 2006. In 2009, Obama appointed her to a leadership post at the federal VA.
Illinois Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, Rep. Tammy Duckworth, appears in Springfield, Ill., on Aug. 13, 2014.
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Kirk, whose 2010 election made him only the second Republican to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate in more than three decades, tried to ding Duckworth over the VA scandal, airing campaign ads that said there was abuse and mismanagement under her watch. Duckworth called the ads false.
Kirk also battled questions about his health following his 2012 stroke. He released a letter from his physician saying he had made a full cognitive recovery, but the issue of whether he was still capable of doing the job hung over the race.
Mike Jobson, 61, of Mahomet, backed Kirk based on one reason: "Government is too big. We want to get the power back in our hands."
He said the vote for Kirk is one he can feel good about, because "I think he has his heart in the right place."
Democrats were so confident in Duckworth's odds they pulled back on planned TV airtime in the final weeks of the campaign to invest in states where the polls were tighter.
Associated Press reporter David Mercer in Mahomet, Illinois, contributed to this report.