CHICAGO (AP) — Sen. Mark Kirk made his second appearance in Chicago’s gay Pride Parade this year. He broke ranks to support Democrat-backed gun control measures and called his party’s presumptive presidential nominee “too bigoted and racist” for the job.
The Republican senator from Illinois is doing his best not to look like a Republican as he seeks re-election in a state that’s expected to heavily favor Democrats.
Kirk’s approach varies from Republicans in competitive races in states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, who may be uneasy about the party’s presumptive presidential nominee, Donald Trump, but are campaigning on their conservative records. But it’s a wise strategy for Kirk. His race with Rep. Tammy Duckworth is seen as one of Democrats’ best opportunities to pick up a seat and possibly retake control of the Senate because Illinois voters tend to vote overwhelmingly Democratic in statewide contests, particularly in presidential election years.
Kirk, who represented Chicago’s North Shore in the U.S. House before winning Obama’s former Senate seat in 2010, insists he has always had an independent streak; he has supported abortion rights and gun-control legislation since early in his five-term House tenure. He says he became even more determined to put his convictions before party after a 2012 stroke that almost killed him.
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“That clarifying moment forged for me a renewed sense of purpose — that I will fight to do right by Illinois all the time,” said Kirk, who became one of the few Republican senators to announce support for gay marriage the year after his stroke. “I have demonstrated the independence to break from my party when I believe they are wrong.”
Democrats are defending 10 Senate seats in November to Republicans’ 24. They need to add four or five seats to win back the majority, depending on which party is in the White House and can send the vice president to break a tie.
Duckworth’s campaign says Kirk is “pretending to be a Democrat” as a matter of “political survival,” and that on key issues he’s stood firmly with Republicans.
Her deputy campaign manager, Matt McGrath, noted that Kirk supported a budget plan that would have turned Medicare into a voucher system and cut taxes for the wealthy while slashing funding for student aid and other programs.
“On the issues that really matter to families, especially on the economy, he is as Republican as it gets and has been his entire career,” McGrath said.
Duckworth’s campaign also says Kirk talks a lot about his more moderate positions when he’s in the Chicago area, but not when he heads to more Republican parts of Illinois, and that she has been consistent in her beliefs.
A TV ad that mentioned Kirk was one of the only Republicans to call for hearings on President Obama’s pick for the Supreme Court aired only in the Chicago area. Kirk supported Republican presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump for months before reversing course in June amid fierce criticism from Democrats.
Asked this week about Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, Trump’s pick for vice president and a social conservative who last year signed legislation critics said could have let businesses in the state refuse to serve gays, Kirk said “I love Mike.”
Former Illinois Republican Party chairman Pat Brady said it’s possible for Kirk’s motives to be both sincere and politically expedient.
“I think that’s truly where he is,” Brady said. “That is certainly beneficial in a state like Illinois, where that approach or that political viewpoint allows you to win because that’s where the state is — particularly suburban women who are probably the most important voting bloc.”
It remains to be seen whether it will be enough for Kirk to keep his seat; his campaign’s own poll released earlier this year showed him three points behind Duckworth.
Voter Delphine Cherry said Kirk’s bold stance on gun measures secured her support. The 58-year-old from the Chicago suburb of Hazel Crest has lost two children to gun violence. She typically votes for Democrats but has backed the occasional Republican when there’s a compelling reason.
“I feel like Sen. Kirk has stood out from the rest. He’s in the fight with us,” said Cherry, pointing to Kirk’s votes in favor of a Democratic legislation to expand background checks and allow the government to deny gun sales to suspected terrorists. The votes followed an attack at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, that left 49 people dead and was the worst mass shooting in modern American history.
Duckworth is expected to have a speaking role when the Democrats gather for their convention later this month.
Kirk, meanwhile, has seemed to go to some lengths to avoid being seen rubbing shoulders with top Republicans, being a last-minute no-show for party festivities at last summer’s Illinois State Fair and this year’s state party convention.
He won’t attend the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, telling a Chicago radio host that “I’ve got to really do my hair that week.”
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