Donald Trump looms large in Illinois Senate race

Story highlights

  • Democrats are gleeful at the prospect of tying GOP Sen. Mark Kirk to Trump
  • Kirk has long defied expectations for Republican politicians in the blue state

Chicago (CNN)Whether he likes it or not, Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk has a new running mate: Donald Trump.

For both Kirk and his challenger, Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, much of their campaign strategy hinges on Trump, now the GOP's presumptive nominee for president.
    Republicans are worried that Kirk, one of the most vulnerable GOP senators, could be dragged down by the divisive billionaire and help Democrats, who only need to win five seats to flip the Senate. It's a scenario that's repeating itself in Senate races all over the map this cycle. Trump has been an omnipresent part of Democrats' rallying (and fundraising) cries, and with campaigns and spending groups looking for ways to tie Republican incumbents to Trump.
    Kirk is trying to walk a narrow path. He is distancing himself himself from Trump's policies and rhetoric, but also has said he will back Trump if he was the nominee and suggested Trump could even help the Republican Party.
    Asked in an interview with CNN last week if he'd support Trump for president, Kirk said: "Certainly, if he's the nominee." Given the opportunity to revise his comments after Trump's win in Indiana, Kirk's campaign declined.
    Kirk said in that interview that even as he runs against many of Trump's positions, specifically citing an "isolationist" foreign policy debuted last week, he is comfortable sharing a ticket with the mogul.
    He even said Trump might help the GOP brand down the line.
    "Donald Trump is kind of a riverboat gamble," Kirk said. "He won the Illinois primary, in this case we have seen the Republican vote up and the Democratic vote down, so it looks like it's a net benefit."
    That embrace is catnip for Duckworth and Democrats, who are more than happy to tie Kirk to Trump.
    "I think that Donald Trump is such a polarizing figure and it's really amazing to me that Mark Kirk has said he will support Donald Trump and that has been helpful, honestly," Duckworth said in an interview. "People see Donald Trump has made all these racist and misogynist statements and so has Mark Kirk, and that allows us to draw a distinction."

    Kirk's on his own

    On paper, Kirk's seat looks like an easy takeover for Democrats. Illinois has voted solidly Democratic in presidential elections since 1992, and Kirk barely eked out a win by less than 60,000 votes in the Republican wave election of 2010. He's lagged behind Duckworth in fundraising and a recent ad buy by the National Republican Senatorial Committee for the fall in five states excluded Illinois, Politico reported.
    The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also skipped Illinois in fall ad reservations, though, focusing on battleground states in the presidential race, which will likely be more expensive as the year goes on.
    Kirk himself jokes about rumors of his demise having long followed his career.
    "Often times, just to upset (Sen.) John McCain, I remind him in the last election where we shared the ballot together, I ran 16 points ahead of him," Kirk said in an interview, referring to the 2008 presidential race and his congressional campaign. "I've always run way ahead of the Republican ballot."
    He told CNN he will be able to withstand the Trump effect.
    "These days I'm probably the best-positioned Republican to weather the institution of Trumpism because I have been voting pro-gay rights and against the gun lobby and solidly pro-choice," Kirk said, despite the fact he will support a Trump nomination.
    Kirk has been endorsed by the pro-gay rights Human Rights Campaign and is also the rare Senate Republican to embrace President Barack Obama's nomination of Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court. GOP leaders have refused to hold a hearing or vote on the nominee, but Kirk is using the issue to show his independence from his party.
    He was the first Republican senator to meet with Garland and called out his own party's leadership for not voting on the nomination.
    Former Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady called Kirk's move on the nomination "smart," even as Trump on top of the ticket would be a "huge concern."
    Duckworth and Illinois Democrats have also been trying to tie Kirk to Trump while calling attention to past gaffes, like when Kirk said he would work on improving diversity and outcomes "so that the black community is not the one we drive faster through" in a 2015 interview.
    And they aren't letting Kirk off the hook on the Garland issue. Duckworth's campaign said he needed to do more than simply meet with the nominee and praise him, saying he should push party leaders to confirm Garland. And Obama gave a strong speech chastising Republicans for their inaction on Garland -- delivered at the University of Chicago Law School.
    The numbers aren't great for Kirk. He would likely have to strongly outperform Trump in order to win. Trump trailed Clinton by 13 points in a CNN/ORC national poll this week in a hypothetical match-up.
    Kirk's own campaign released an internal poll last month showing him down by 3 percentage points but within the margin of error, a move many strategists read as an attempt to signal to donors and national groups the race remains close to prevent donors from abandoning the incumbent.
    But Kirk has shown the ability to beat the political odds before.
    "Kirk is always supposed to lose," Brady said. "In bad years, he performs very well."