Despite some similarities, Senate candidates will focus on differences

Bound by an interest in veterans issues, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk and U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth faced an audience together at a John Marshall Law School event in 2014, touched each others' hands more than once and expressed a mutual respect.

Both sat behind a table and received applause during the 30-minute talk, which is preserved in the school's video online.

"As always, it's a real, real pleasure and an honor to be sitting next to the senator," Duckworth, a Hoffman Estates Democrat, said early in the program.

"It's an honor to be with my sister-in-arms," Kirk said as it was his turn to speak, then joked that pilots have a different view of the world from above.

"Gosh, it sucks down there," Kirk said, looking down.

Duckworth, who lost her legs when the chopper she was piloting in Iraq was shot down, joined in. "I got a helicopter," she said, "so I wouldn't have to walk, but, you know."

"We both wear the same kind of orthotic, both with Army camo," Kirk said later in the

  Democrat Tammy Duckworth walks offstage with her husband, thanking her supporters after declaring victory in the Senate primary in Chicago. Mark Welsh/


As things are shaping up less than two and a half years later, pleasantries, smiles and expressions of respect aren't going to be a big part of the two veterans' race for U.S. Senate in the coming months.

Theirs is a campaign that's deemed critical to each party's hopes to control the upper chamber when a new president is sworn in next year, and it's off to a hot start.

"Mark Kirk has long embraced (Donald) Trump's brand of divisive rhetoric and fear mongering, and now he is embracing the man himself,"

  Democrat Tammy Duckworth waves to her supporters after declaring victory in the Senate primary in Chicago. Mark Welsh/

Duckworth said on Election Night. "Well, those aren't our values,"

"I'll be fighting for fiscal sanity and lower taxes and a balanced budget, while Tammy Duckworth has voted to increase the size of government and to raise our borrowing,"

Joe Lewnard/jlewnard@dailyherald.comU.S. Senator Mark Kirk R-Ill gives a "thumbs up" as he speaks during his election night party in Chicago fowwlowing Tuesday's primary..

Kirk said.

Even before the primary, the two campaigns had for months appeared to look past their party opponents toward the fall matchup with each other, even arguing and fundraising for November.

Now, they actually do oppose each other, and each candidate comes to the general election campaign with both assets and challenges.

Kirk, of Highland Park, who served five terms in the House before his 2010 Senate win, is asking voters for a second term in his first fall campaign since he suffered a stroke in 2012.

The stroke was serious enough that it required a year of recovery and rehabilitation before he returned, eventually walking up the steps of the Capitol building in a high-profile event as other members of the Senate and Congress applauded.

Duckworth suffered life-altering injuries in Iraq when her Black Hawk helicopter was shot down, and she comes to the Senate race as she concludes her second term in Congress.

So both of their personal stories involve physical challenges and have been inspiring to their admirers.

The two are linked by at least one irony as well.

U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin talked Duckworth into running for Congress her first time in 2006 and endorsed her 2016 primary bid, and he helped pick up some of Kirk's work during his fellow senator's rehabilitation.

Their campaigns, though, will be about differences.

Kirk has run ads about his position on Syrian refugees. He wants a pause in accepting them into the U.S. following the Paris terror attacks, and he criticizes Duckworth for saying the country should accept more.

And, Kirk's campaign has sought to highlight a trial scheduled for April that centers around Duckworth's time at the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs.

Duckworth's campaign has tried to tie Kirk to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell's statements that senators won't consider President Barack Obama's latest Supreme Court nominee, even though Kirk repeated as recently as Thursday his position disagreeing with McConnell.

Duckworth's fundraising emails have called Kirk's ads about Syria "fear-mongering."

Both candidates won their primaries with comfortable margins without the high drama that has accompanied both Democratic and the Republican presidential races.

Does either candidate have an edge? Even on that point, there's room for disagreement.

Duckworth's supporters point out that a half-million more Democrats voted in the primary than Republicans, which would put numbers in Duckworth's favor.

Kirk's backers, including campaign manager Kevin Artl writing in a news release following the primary victory, emphasize that he tends to perform better in elections than the top of the ticket.

"Sen. Kirk has overcome long odds in life and in every political race he has ever entered," Artl wrote.

The general election is Nov. 8.

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