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Kirk's Next Challenge? Re-Election in 2016

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call
Kirk returned to the Senate a year ago after having an ischemic stroke. The next challenge he faces is winning re-election in 2016, a goal he’s already working on by starting to visit the major media markets in Illinois.

It’s unclear whether Democrats will choose to run a top candidate in what’s expected to be a highly contested race, but names often mentioned for statewide runs include Rep. Tammy Duckworth and Attorney General Lisa Madigan — who declined to run against Kirk in 2010. The Illinois congressional delegation is also packed with young Democrats, such as Cheri Bustos, Robin Kelly and Mike Quigley.

“There’s been some names floated on the Democratic side, and I don’t think they can beat Mark. I’m not saying that for Republicans in Illinois it’s easy, but nobody runs a better campaign on our side,” Brady said. “The president came in, everybody and their brother was campaigning for Alexi, and Mark’s win was more significant than people give him credit for.”

‘Aha! Moments’

Suffering and then recovering from a traumatic brain injury is a process filled with breakthroughs of various sizes, both for the stroke victim and those closest to him.

Kirk said one of his first and most important realizations hinged on a single preposition: “for,” as in “senator for Illinois,” not just “from” it. In the year he spent in Washington, D.C., before his stroke, the strong-headed Kirk saw less reason to collaborate with the state’s delegation, including Durbin.

“I sat there in that hospital room thinking, because the taxpayers are paying for these two guys who have the same title to do the same thing for the same people in the same chamber, they ought to work together,” Kirk said. “And they ought to wring as much conflict as possible out of their relationship, which we definitely have done.”

Durbin agreed.

“Since he’s been back, it’s been a year now, he gets stronger every day,” Durbin told CQ Roll Call. “Personally, jointly, involved in a long range of topics and decisions for the state, our friendship and level of cooperation has never been stronger.”

In 2013, Durbin and Kirk toured tornado-ravaged towns together and resumed their bipartisan constituent coffees. The Democrat is up for re-election in 2014. When asked whether he would endorse Durbin’s GOP opponent, likely Oberweis, Kirk said, “I will work to preserve our relationship in an appropriate way.”

The more significant realizations for Kirk, however, are not his own — they come from others who have watched him recover. They see that beyond the wheelchair or the cane, he is in many ways the same person he was before the stroke. Because that is what he is going to have to convince the voters in Illinois in 2016.

Davis, who worked on Kirk’s 2010 campaign, first visited the senator in Illinois six months after his stroke. But Davis’ “Aha!” moment didn’t come until a fundraiser last November. Kirk made a brief appearance to help the downstate congressman raise money for his competitive campaign. When Davis walked Kirk out, the senator spotted two restaurant workers and immediately started talking to them in Spanish.

“He’s no different than the Mark Kirk who used to be,” Davis said. “Who would have thought he’d have all the talents that made him who he was after something so traumatic? It was one of those ‘Aha!’ moments of ‘there’s the Mark Kirk I used to know.’”

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