Helping Tammy Duckworth Unseat Mark Kirk

How JStreetPAC made a difference in Wisconsin's senate race.

The Candidates

Rep. Tammy Duckworth’s defeat of Sen. Mark Kirk in Illinois’ U.S. Senate election showcased how extreme hawkishness and reckless foreign policy can backfire on a candidate and prove a major political liability.

Duckworth was first endorsed by JStreetPAC during her successful 2012 Congressional race, when she defeated extreme right-winger Rep. Joe Walsh. As a decorated war veteran who suffered a severe combat injury in Iraq, Rep. Duckworth was perfectly positioned to take on Kirk, who in his one-term built a reputation as one of the most vocal and aggressive hawks in the Senate.

Kirk took the lead on the “Kirk-Menendez” legislation, designed to undercut negotiations with Iran by imposing new sanctions. After the agreement was signed, Kirk’s attacks on the President were more vitriolic than any other Senator: claiming that the President wanted to “get nukes to Iran” and accusing him of “acting like the drug dealer-in-chief”.

J Street was determined to help Duckworth go on the offensive against Kirk. She was endorsed by JStreetPAC, following her Democratic primary victory, in February 2016.


Rep. Tammy Duckworth spoke at a J Street event during the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.

The Campaign

With Kirk’s outlandish statements making him increasingly unpopular, Illinois was viewed as a prime opportunity for the Democrats to pick up a key Senate seat. With national attention focusing on the race early on, JStreetPAC helped make a huge immediate impact – raising $100,000 in contributions for Duckworth just two months after her endorsement. In total, we raised over $227,000, helping the campaign to fight back against right-wing groups pouring money into the race – including the Republican Jewish Coalition, which made re-electing Kirk one of their top priorities for the cycle.

Kirk-aligned PACs launched attacks ads based on Duckworth’s support for the nuclear agreement, charging that she “can’t be trusted on national security.” But they failed to give Kirk control of the national security narrative. Instead, Duckworth was able to charge, as she did in one debate, that “Time and time again, the senator has been wrong on national security issues.” J Street helped validate that charge by running our own targeted digital ads in the state, which showed how Kirk stood with the dangerous Donald Trump in opposing the Iran deal – while Duckworth stood with a litany of American and Israeli security leaders. We drove the message home with our Illinois direct mail piece, highlighting Duckworth’s pro-Israel, pro-peace record and described how Kirk’s “recklessness could lead us to war.”

Ultimately, Kirk’s belligerent foreign policy stance proved to be a major liability, Duckworth was able to paint him as an irresponsible leader gambling with the lives of Americans, while she demonstrably understood the real costs of war – and the need to view it only as an option of last resort. In their endorsement of Duckworth, the Chicago Tribune noted that Duckworth “[W]ould not support overseas deployments of American troops without a long-term plan and exit strategy. She voted for the Iranian nuclear deal, which Kirk opposed.” The Sun-Times cited Kirk’s inflammatory attacks on President Obama’s Iran diplomacy in their own endorsement of the Congresswoman.

The results

Tammy Duckworth has been a pro-Israel, pro-peace champion and a close friend of J Street since she first entered the House, and her election to the Senate replaces one of diplomacy’s biggest critics with one of its most compelling advocates. Kirk’s close ties to the right-wing pro-Israel establishment and adherence to their outdated playbook only alienated Illinois voters who were in search of foreign policy solutions, not over-the-top saber-rattling.

By mobilizing significant fundraising and communications resources and challenging Kirk on his disastrous record, J Street helped to unseat a true obstacle to effective American leadership in the Middle East. We showed that we can be an extremely effective ally for candidates who are ready to reclaim what it means to be strong on national security.