CHICAGO – Fighting to hold on to his political career, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk turned a recent Republican luncheon into a crash course on the Islamic State group, complete with a map of Syria he brought with him to western Illinois. He pointed out Russian maneuvers and ISIS territory, called for more U.S. air strikes and touted his efforts to keep extremists from entering the U.S. as refugees.
"I want you to send a national security hawk to the Senate," the former Navy intelligence officer told the crowd.
Like other Republicans up for election nationwide, Kirk is making national security a prime focus of his bid for a second term. It's a strategy that has historically worked well for the GOP, particularly at times when voters are on edge about the country's safety, as many are now.
But Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth could flip the script if the two candidates face off, as expected, in November. A former Army helicopter pilot, Duckworth lost both legs when the Blackhawk she was co-piloting was shot down in Iraq in 2004. She later was awarded the Purple Heart.
Democrats nationally see Duckworth as one of their best chances to win a seat this fall in the U.S. Senate, where the party needs to pick up four seats to regain control if a Democrat wins the race for president. Duckworth not only neutralizes Kirk on national security issues, they say, she one-ups him.
"We're eager to have this debate," said Duckworth spokesman Matt McGrath, adding that Kirk has been wrong on critical foreign policy and national security questions, "often with disastrous results."
Kirk campaign manager Kevin Artl said the former congressman is proud of his record, from his 23-year career with the Navy to his work in the U.S. House and Senate, where he's been one of the staunchest opponents of Iran.
"Sen. Kirk has demonstrated his leadership on national security," Artl said. "It creates a critical debate on who has the right vision and strategy for this unique time that we're in."
Kirk and Duckworth are considered the heavy favorites to win their respective primaries, due to both strong name recognition and substantial fundraising advantages.
Duckworth faces state Sen. Napoleon Harris, who played seven seasons in the NFL, and former federal prosecutor and Chicago Urban League CEO Andrea Zopp in the March 15 Democratic primary. Businessman James Marter, who says he's more conservative than Kirk, is challenging him for the GOP nomination.
Voter Mike Bigger, a Republican who helped organize the Kirk event in the 6,000-resident Stark County, called Duckworth a "war hero" and predicted she'll be a formidable candidate. But he said on issues such as admitting Syrian refugees, he feels more comfortable with Kirk.
"There's just so much going on and it's such a volatile world," Bigger said. "Even in the small rural areas like Stark County, people are very mindful of that."
While Kirk has looked more like a Democrat on many issues — he opposed a GOP effort to defund Planned Parenthood and has been honored by the Illinois Council Against Handgun Violence — there are clear differences between the two candidates on national security issues, including how to handle the refugee crisis.
Kirk has called for a "pause" in admitting Syrian refugees until the administration "can guarantee with 100 percent assurance" they aren't ISIS members or sympathizers. He wants the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security to certify an individual poses no threat to the U.S., hasn't posted pro-terrorist messages on social media and hasn't helped any terrorist organization before they could enter the country.
Duckworth, meanwhile, has called for accepting 200,000 refugees, including 100,000 from Syria — far more than the number supported by President Obama.
Kirk has called her position extreme, even compared with other Democrats. At the recent lunch presentation, he said it was the equivalent of giving ISIS an "air force" to invade the U.S.
Duckworth says it's Kirk who's putting the country at risk by using rhetoric that will lead more Syrians to become radicalized against the U.S., and that the vast majority of refugees are fleeing ISIS.
"ISIS is a real threat. They must be destroyed and we need to commit to destroying them," she said. "We need to make sure that in responding to ISIS and standing with our allies that we also make sure we look out for the best interests of the human condition."
This story has been corrected to show that Duckworth has called for admitting 200,000 refugees, including 100,000 from Syria, not 200,000 Syrian refugees.
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