Kirk faces tough re-election challenge as he skips Cleveland

As he runs for a second term in a state that leans Democratic and in a year when he's disavowed his party's presidential candidate, Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says the 2008 election looms large in his mind.

Kirk, of Highland Park, was facing a tough race in the North suburbs for a fifth term in Congress in a rematch against up-and-coming Democrat Dan Seals. The popularity of a presidential candidate can have powerful sway down the ballot, and leading the Democrats' ticket was Illinois' Barack Obama, who would later win suburban counties that often vote Republican.

Yet, Kirk overcame that and won his race.

This year, as Donald Trump's controversies raise questions for Republicans who share the ballot with him, Kirk argues Democrat Hillary Clinton's weaknesses might help him.

"At the time, I worried about that factor," Kirk said of Obama's popularity in 2008. "And right now, I find that Hillary is no Obama in Illinois."

Kirk has been called by national media the most likely Republican senator in the U.S. to lose his seat in November as he runs against Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates, a second-term member of Congress.

He has pushed back against Trump and is skipping this week's Cleveland convention in an effort to tell voters he's an independent who will break with his party. Kirk had previously said he'd back the nominee but made a high-profile split with Trump last month that led to the real estate magnate calling Kirk a "loser" at a closed-door meeting in Washington, D.C. And in a New York Times Magazine story, Kirk joked about the pushback with fellow Trump critic Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse.

"I joke to Ben Sasse that if Trump wins, he'll be my roommate at Gitmo," Kirk said.

Kirk's quips have sometimes gotten him into trouble. He faced criticism for a comment he made in a Senate committee room on a hot mic, saying the unmarried Sen. Lindsey Graham was a "bro with no ho." He apologized afterward.

Duckworth's campaign has worked to remind voters both Kirk and Trump are Republicans in typically blue-state Illinois.

"It's obvious why Kirk is hiding from the circus, but he can't hide from his terrible record of putting Washington lobbyists ahead of Illinois families," Duckworth spokesman Matt McGrath said this week.

Kirk's snub of the national convention mirrors Republican Gov. Bruce Rauner's, yet convention speakers have talked to the Illinois delegation - mostly Trump backers - about how re-electing the senator is a priority.

Kirk suffered a major stroke in January 2012, about a year after his Senate term began. Recovery kept him on Washington's sidelines for another year. Now, he walks with a cane or uses a wheelchair.

He said it continues to make some parts of his job challenging.

"I think the congresswoman knows that the job of physical therapy when you're disabled is never done," Kirk said, referring to Duckworth, a veteran who lost both legs in an attack in Iraq. "You want to make sure you're always challenging yourself."

"Working a reception from a wheelchair is pretty tough. I try to work a reception the way Peter Fitzgerald taught me, to shake everybody's hand and go around the whole room," Kirk said. Fitzgerald held the Senate seat Kirk does for the term before Obama did. "And when you're confined to a wheelchair, it's hard to make sure that you get everybody. Because somebody might slip out because you're not that fast in working the room."

His stroke recovery has been marked by stair climbs of Capitol steps and Chicago skyscrapers.

"For me, the highs have been literal highs," Kirk said.

His recovery story has been featured in some of the campaign's earliest videos, and in Duckworth, he's facing an opponent with her own compelling recovery story about the grenade that hit her Black Hawk helicopter in Iraq.

While Kirk's disavowal of Trump might be a positive among some Republicans uneasy with the unorthodox presidential candidate, Kirk might pay the price with some Trump backers.

Trump convention delegate Bob Bednar of Mundelein says he might not cast a vote in Kirk's race rather than vote for him or Democrat Duckworth.

Kirk has a different strategy in the presidential contest. He said in an interview he'll write in a vote for former Secretary of State Colin Powell for president, a tally he acknowledges wouldn't count under Illinois rules. He'd earlier said he'd write in embattled former CIA Director and retired U.S. Army General David Petraeus, which drew criticism from Duckworth.

As Kirk moved through his first term, top members of his staff left to join Gov. Rauner's administration. Rauner's first two chiefs of staff have been Kirk alums, as are two of his spokesmen, among others.

Rauner's not on the ballot this year, but Kirk points to the governor's 2014 win as a reason to hope about 2016.

"Washington knows that Illinois votes Democrat every time," Kirk said. "Except when it doesn't."

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