Trump and Blagojevich loom large in Illinois Senate race

As the candidates in Illinois' hot U.S. Senate race try to define each other, presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and imprisoned former Democratic Gov. Rod Blagojevich are set to play a big role.

Both incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk and his Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, are seeking to remind voters of the other's ties to more controversial members of their parties.

After a judge ruled last week a trial could go forward involving Duckworth's time as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans' Affairs under Blagojevich, Kirk's campaign pounced with a new TV ad calling the Hoffman Estates Democrat “Blagojevich's veterans director.”

“Rod Blagojevich must be beaming with pride,” an email from the National Republican Senatorial Committee read.

Meanwhile, Duckworth's campaign has sought to highlight every instance Kirk has talked about Trump, whose views on immigration and other issues during the presidential campaign have come under fire. Kirk has said he'll skip the Republican National Convention this summer in Cleveland but has said in interviews he'd support the party's nominee.

“We have to do everything we can to stop Trump — and that includes building a firewall in the Senate to block his hateful agenda,” a Duckworth fundraising email reads.

Each candidate is trying to define the other for voters in the early weeks of a campaign that still has six months to go before Election Day in November.

Duckworth was appointed to serve as the state veterans director by Blagojevich following her 2006 loss for a seat in Congress to Republican U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam of Wheaton. The case going to trial in August comes from two southern Illinois veterans home workers who raised ethical issues. One accuses Duckworth of telling her to “do your job and keep your mouth shut.”

That trial could wrap up before the election.

Meanwhile, Trump is set to share the Illinois ballot with Kirk in November.

“Donald Trump is kind of a riverboat gambler,” Kirk recently told CNN. “He won the Illinois primary. In this case we have seen the Republican vote up and the Democratic vote down, so it looks like a net benefit.”

Candidates' efforts to tie each other to other politicians is a well-worn campaign strategy that has occasionally proven effective in Illinois.

Blagojevich's legal troubles and impeachment loomed over former Gov. Pat Quinn in his 2010 bid for governor, but he won that election.

In 2006, though, Blagojevich called then-Illinois Treasurer Judy Baar Topinka “George Ryan's treasurer” in ads that helped tie the Republican candidate to the convicted former governor. Blagojevich won that race.

Earlier this year, Duckworth held a news conference at Chicago State University trying to link Kirk to Gov. Bruce Rauner and the ongoing state budget stalemate.

“Because of the stubbornness of the governor, (Chicago State is) a month away from shutting its doors to these kids,” she said then.

In response, Kirk's campaign linked Duckworth to House Speaker Michael Madigan, Rauner's chief foil in the budget impasse.

“By attacking Gov. Rauner, it is clear that Rep. Duckworth is siding with Speaker Michael Madigan and his agenda of higher taxes and no reform,” Kirk campaign manager Kevin Artl said.

And in yet another twist, Trump and Blagojevich have history together. After Blagojevich was impeached, he appeared on Trump's “Celebrity Apprentice” reality TV show in 2010.

Trump fired Blagojevich over his failures in a Harry Potter-themed challenge.

“I just want to ask this one question,” Trump said. “Your Harry Potter facts were not accurate. Who did the research?”

Kirk, of Highland Park, is seeking his first Senate re-election bid after spending five terms in the House from the North suburbs. Duckworth is in her second term in Congress. She declined to run for re-election to seek the Senate seat.

Nationally, both parties see the race as an important one in the battle for control of the Senate next term.

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