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.
“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.