Senate

Sen. Kirk questions opponent's family history in testy Illinois debate

Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, right, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, left, face off in their first televised debate in what's considered a crucial race that could determine which party controls the Senate, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, at the University of Illinois in Springfield, Ill.

Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, right, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, left, face off in their first televised debate in what's considered a crucial race that could determine which party controls the Senate, Thursday, Oct. 27, 2016, at the University of Illinois in Springfield, Ill.  (AP)

A debate between Senate candidates in Illinois turned testy Thursday as the incumbent Republican Mark Kirk ribbed Democratic challenger Rep. Tammy Duckworth’s family history of military service as she hit him for previous remarks he’s made in the past against the president.

The Senate contest is considered to be one of the most important this November because it’s one of a handful of races that could determine which party controls the chamber next year.

Kirk, a first-term senator from Highland Park, is seen as a Republican who could most likely lose his seat. Duckworth has a comfortable lead in the most recent polls, but Kirks has insisted the race is much closer than people think.

In their first televised debate Thursday, Kirk and Duckworth shared an awkward moment of her family’s history of the military. Duckworth spoke about how her "family has served this nation in uniform going back to the Revolution." The comment prompted Kirk to quip: "I'd forgotten your parents came all of the way from Thailand to serve George Washington."

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Duckworth was born in Bangkok, but her father was a U.S. Marine who reportedly has family roots that trace to the Revolutionary War.

Most of the audience stood silent after the comment. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee immediately called the comment offensive and Kirk should apologize.

Kirk has been criticized before for statements he's made during the campaign. In August he said President Obama was acting like the "drug dealer in chief" when the U.S. made a $400 million payment to Iran contingent on the return of U.S. prisoners. Earlier in the debate Duckworth cited that as an example of why she thinks Kirk shouldn't be in the Senate.

Kirk spokesman Kevin Artl praised the Senator's debate performance.

"Senator Kirk has always commended Representative Duckworth. He's called her a war hero in his commercials and he commends her family's service," Artl said. "But that's not what this debate was about."

Kirk repeatedly called Duckworth too partisan and said he worried "that she will go to war with the 54 Republicans" in the Senate. He emphasized his bipartisan record, while Duckworth focused her arguments on pledging to improve economic opportunities for working families, saying she wants to ensure they "have a shot at the American Dream."

Both candidates have received high-profile endorsements in the final weeks of their campaign. Former Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney praised Kirk as an independent voice in the Senate and said his victory is important to help the GOP control the chamber and "keep America from going off the rails."

Kirk has been a vocal critic of Donald Trump's presidential candidacy and has called for the Senate to hold hearings on Obama's pick for the Supreme Court.

Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway quickly hit Kirk over his comments on Twitter, saying “The same Mark Kirk that unendorsed his party's presidential nominee and called him out in paid ads? Gotcha. Good luck.”

This month, Obama appeared at a fundraiser for Duckworth and recorded a radio ad noting how she made her way through college with the help of loans and grants and highlighting her father's job as a factory worker. Obama says in the ad that Duckworth has "walked in our shoes."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.