Pledging to fight to rebuild the middle class, Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth recalled her own victories over adversity as she spoke after unseating Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk to become the second woman to represent Illinois in the chamber.
Duckworth spoke about growing up in a family that had to use food stamps after her father lost his job, and also recounted the day 12 years ago when the helicopter she was co-piloting in Iraq was shot down. She lost both legs but survived thanks to members of her unit who carried her lifeless body to safety, she said at Tuesday’s victory party in Chicago. One of those men was in the crowd to help celebrate.
“I wake up every morning now, trying to be worthy of my crew and their struggle, to be worthy of this miraculous second chance,” said Duckworth, who planned to make stops in Chicago, Springfield and Peoria on Wednesday.
Democrats had counted on a win in Illinois as they looked to retake control of the U.S. Senate, but as of early Wednesday, the party was seeing its odds of gaining the majority slipping away, with losses in several key states, including Wisconsin and Florida, and other races too close to call.
The two-term congress woman from Hoffman Estates entered the race a heavy favorite; Illinois has long backed Democrats for statewide office, especially in presidential election years.
Kirk, a first-term senator, had worked for months to convince voters that he’s independent of his party by criticizing GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump as “racist” and “delusional” and talking up his record of breaking from Republicans on issues such as gun control and gay marriage.
But he hurt his own campaign with a series of controversial statements, including last month, when he had to apologize to Duckworth after mocking her immigrant background — she was born in Bangkok to a Chinese-Thai mother and American father — and her family’s military history during a debate. Two organizations withdrew their endorsements, calling the remarks racist.
That was enough to persuade Charles Hawley, a psychiatrist from the central Illinois town of Mahomet, to cast his ballot for Duckworth. “It just sort of stuck with me,” the 49-year-old said.
Kirk also had apologized for referring to South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who’s unmarried, as a “bro with no ho,” and was criticized for saying President Barack Obama was acting like “the drug dealer in chief” when his administration delivered $400 million cash to Iran contingent on the release of American prisoners.
Duckworth served as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs after losing her first bid for Congress in 2006. In 2009, Obama appointed her to a leadership post at the federal VA.
Kirk, whose 2010 election made him only the second Republican to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate in more than three decades, suffered a stroke in 2012. He battled questions during the race about whether he was still healthy enough to do the job.