Kirk tries to look past Marter toward November matchup
It didn't take long after the death of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia before politically savvy Illinoisans started wondering what U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, a Highland Park Republican, would do.
His party leader, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, said Republicans wouldn't consider a replacement until after the election. Days later, Kirk disagreed and called on President Barack Obama to appoint a centrist candidate.
"Such a selection by the president would demonstrate a break from the rancor and partisanship of Washington and a real commitment to a new beginning even as his own term nears its end," he wrote in an op-ed.
Kirk is on the ballot next month for the first time since his 2012 stroke, trying to win a second term in the U.S. Senate. His move on the Scalia appointment might take an attack line out of Democrats' playbook in the November election, but it puts him at odds with his March 15 primary opponent, James Marter of Oswego, who is trying to run to Kirk's political right.
Kirk has secured the backing of Gov. Bruce Rauner -- who now benefits from the work of a number of former Kirk staff members -- and most of Illinois' top Republicans, including a dozen suburban township endorsements. He has campaign money in the bank, a decade and a half in Congress to lean on and a statewide network of supporters developed during his first term in office.
An information technology consultant who has spent the last months traveling the state, Marter has found support among some township Republican organizations and Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran at a time when Donald Trump's candidacy for president could reflect some voters' ill-will toward the political establishment.
"I'm the only Republican in this race," Marter said.
Kirk hasn't kept the same heavy public appearance schedule as some other officials and has been criticized for controversial comments, such as calling U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham a "bro with no ho" into a live microphone at a Senate committee hearing.
Former Illinois Republican Party Chairman Pat Brady said voters will -- or already have -- forgotten about those comments.
He said Kirk's foreign policy credentials will help lift his candidacy this year when Americans are showing particular interest in foreign affairs.
"That's been his strong suit since he's been in the Senate," Brady, of St. Charles, said.
Kirk was a vocal critic of Obama's Iran deal and has called for a moratorium on the U.S. accepting Syrian refugees. His early campaign advertising has focused on the position that Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates has taken on the issue.
Duckworth, former Chicago Urban League CEO Andrea Zopp and state Sen. Napoleon Harris are competing for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate.
Marter has criticized Kirk for a poor rating from the National Rifle Association and for Kirk's vote against legislation to strip federal funding from Planned Parenthood. He's embraced his role as a newcomer. His previous campaign experience includes running as a write-in candidate for Oswego village trustee and he says he's enjoyed traveling the state.
"It's just been overwhelming," he said. "One way or another, I've met a lot of great people."
Kirk faced a primary opponent six years ago in Patrick Hughes, who also sought to run to Kirk's right. In 2010, Kirk won the general election against then state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, even though Democrat Pat Quinn won the governor's race in the same election.
The Senate seat Kirk now occupies is the one previously held by President Barack Obama. It's also the seat former Gov. Rod Blagojevich tried to sell and then appointed Roland Burris to when Obama went to the White House.