As Democrats prepare to mount a campaign to oust Republican incumbent Sen. Mark Kirk in Illinois, racial politics are coming into play. Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth has officially tossed her hat into the ring. She’s the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress from Illinois, and the first disabled American elected to the House. Duckworth is an Iraq War veteran, who lost both her legs in 2004 after a rocket-propelled grenade hit her helicopter.
Sen. Kirk had a serious stroke in 2012, but has made a remarkable recovery. He maintains an “energetic schedule," moving throughout the Capitol in a wheelchair, according to Politico. Both candidates have experience with dealing with deep personal struggles.
Yet, despite Duckworth’s impressive credentials to run for the Senate seat in deep Illinois, there’s some concern that black voters might not turn out in 2016 given that she’s not black.
Democratic Party infighting on this issue could be a blessing for Sen. Kirk, who can’t really count on his incumbent advantage in a state dominated by Democrats. Former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley has been trying to recruit Andrea Zoop, a former general counsel to Exelon and Sears, to run for the seat (via National Journal):
[O]utside of the Beltway, some Illinois Democrats aren't ready to rally around Duckworth just yet. Looking ahead to the first statewide election without President Obama on the ballot, they say the party needs an African-American candidate to help motivate black voters in 2016, and they think they've found just the woman for the job.
Andrea Zopp—a 57-year-old Harvard law grad with an impressive corporate resume, including time as general counsel for Sears and Exelon—has spent the past four years as president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. Now she's considering a Senate run of her own.
"I've been looking at the race now for probably a couple months, and talked to a lot of people," Zopp told National Journal in an interview Friday. "We're running a poll to test what I'm hearing from people, and if that poll comes out positive, then I have every strong expectation that I am going to get into the race."
Zopp is being recruited by African-American political leaders, as well as former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, to forge an uphill bid against Duckworth, who already has raised more than $1.5 million for her campaign.
"My consideration isn't about the turnout," she said. "My consideration is that as an African-American woman I think I bring perspective that the African-American community and also other communities of color will respond to, and I think that perspective is not represented in the race."
Duckworth, the only declared candidate in the race so far, was born in Thailand to an American father and Thai mother, and has some Chinese ancestry. Daley, who has been urging Zopp into the race, said Democrats would be "idiots" to not worry about a potential drop-off in black voters if there were no African-American candidate on the ballot in either of the top two slots.
Zopp isn't the only African-American candidate considering the race. A spokesman for Rep. Robin Kelly, who recently met with the DSCC, told National Journal that she "continues to weigh a possible Senate bid," and was also undeterred by the recent moves by Zopp or EMILY's List. Additionally, state senator and former NFL linebacker Napoleon Harris is rumored to be exploring his chances.
But Zopp's allies say she's the only one of those candidates to present a real insider-outsider argument against Kirk, at a time when social conflicts like the one in Baltimore are raising the need for more community activists in Congress.
At the same time, Democratic consultants in Illinois don’t think Duckworth is in trouble. Moreover, it’s a bit disturbing that skin color is the first thing that comes to mind concerning driving voter turnout. Both Zopp and Duckworth seem to have solid credentials to run for political office–in Duckworth’s case, higher office; but Zopp is better because she doesn’t carry the threat that black voter turnout will drop. At least Zopp is saying publicly she isn't worried about turnout.
After all, Sen. Kirk has run into trouble speaking about race in the past (via CNN):
Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk says he won't talk about race anymore after his comments last week that "we drive faster" through black communities sparked criticism from Democrats.
Kirk made the comments in an interview with the Peoria Journal-Star, when asked his thoughts on encouraging innovation in Illinois. Kirk touted his efforts to foster an "African-American entrepreneurial class," and suggested Illinois could someday be home to a "class of African-American billionaires."
"That would really adjust income differentials and make the diversity and outcome of the state much better so that the black community is not the one we drive faster through," he added.
In a statement issued after Kirk's comments were published, the senator's spokeswoman underscored his work for the African American community.
"Anyone watching network news in Chicago is aware of the frequent killings and violence that affects various communities in the state," said spokeswoman Eleni Demertzis.
"Senator Kirk is active in fighting gang violence, keeping assault weapons of the streets, and works within the African American community to find aspiring entrepreneurs. No one can question Senator Kirk's commitment to the African-American community."
Kirk is seen as Republicans' most vulnerable incumbent this cycle, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee wasted little time in pouncing on the comments, calling them "offensive."
You would think Democrats wouldn’t fret so much about–for all intents and purposes–a safe Democratic Senate seat in a presidential year, let alone the race of the person on the ballot.