Six weeks ago, Rep. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) announced that she would challenge Senator Mark Kirk (R-IL) in his re-election bid in 2016. Despite the Republican win in 2014’s gubernatorial election, this could be a tough seat for the GOP to hold in next year’s cycle, and Duckworth makes it even tougher. A double amputee veteran of the Iraq War, Duckworth has appeal to women, progressives, and veterans, while Kirk will have to answer questions about his health after a stroke in his first term.
It would be tough, that is, if Democrats can keep from snatching defeat from the jaws of competitiveness. Instead, Illinois Democrats seem to have taken a page from the GOP, hoping to find a significant challenger to Duckworth in the primary. They have no problem with Duckworth herself, except the boxes she checks on her diversity application, as National Journal’s Andrea Drusch reports:
Since announcing her bid just over a month ago, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has heaped praise on her candidacy, highlighting her “strong track record of results for Illinois” and “incredible personal story.” Two potential Senate candidates from her delegation, Reps. Cheri Bustos and Bill Foster, quickly stepped aside, lauding her credentials for the race as they did so. On Thursday, she received a formal endorsement from the influential Democratic group EMILY’s List, which called her a “champion for Illinois’ middle class, women, and members of the military.”
But outside 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.”
No less a personage in the Democratic Party than Bill Daley wants her to challenge Duckworth for the nomination. Drusch reports that Daley thinks the Democrats would be “idiots” to nominate anyone other than an African-American for the Senate, since the top spot on the ticket will almost certainly be caucasian. Duckworth, who has Asian ancestry through her Thai mother, apparently doesn’t give the Democrats the right diversity for Illinois Democrats. (Both Democrats and Republicans have one elected African-American in the Senate at present, Cory Booker and Tim Scott.)
As amusing and manipulative as this is, Illinois Democrats have a point about demographics and the 2016 election. Barack Obama managed to inspire a unique turnout model, based not just on race but also on his relative youth. At this point, Democrats have a choice between a woman who will be 69 and have been in the Beltway for almost a quarter-century by the time of the election, a 73-year-old socialist from Vermont in Bernie Sanders, or possibly the man who got booed out of Baltimore last week, Martin O’Malley. If the turnout model for 2016 comes close to the 2014 turnout model in Illinois, Democrats in the state might be toast — not just in the Senate election but at least theoretically in the presidential election as well.
And if they’re worried about that in Illinois, then they’ll be panicking about it in purplish states — like Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Wisconsin, Virginia, and perhaps even in Michigan and Pennsylvania. The question about whether Democrats can sustain the Obama coalition will be one of the most critical of the election for both parties. Democrats failed to maintain it in two successive midterm elections without Obama on the ticket, and the normal fatigue of a two-term presidency will be weighing on them as well. Given the lack of inspirational options, it’s almost a question of whether Democrats can even meet the midterm turnout model, but there’s still lots of time for that to develop.
The irony is that they’re trying to fix a problem where likely none exists. If Illinois Democrats want to knock Kirk out of the Senate, Duckworth is almost certainly their best shot. If the state party establishment throws her under the bus to make a nakedly cynical play like this, don’t expect that to inspire voters — and it might just revive the fortunes of Republicans in Illinois.