Democrats are counting on Duckworth to help them keep control of the U.S. Senate
On a Saturday a few weeks before next month’s election, almost all of the biggest names in Illinois politics went to a hotel ballroom in Northbrook for a luncheon organized by the Northfield Township Democrats.
Among the top-of-the-ticket candidates at that event in the northern suburbs of Chicago were Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle — who is also the leader of the county’s Democratic Party — and Illinois Gov. JB Pritzker.
But the clear star of the day was Tammy Duckworth. She took the podium to a standing ovation after Pritzker spoke briefly and ceded the microphone to her.
“It is now my great pleasure to introduce your keynote speaker, a genuine war hero, a fighter for reproductive rights and our great United States senator, Sen. Tammy Duckworth,” Pritzker said as the full room cheered loudly and Duckworth used her wheelchair to climb a ramp to the podium.
It’s been six years since Duckworth made history in the 2016 election, when the Iraq war veteran easily defeated GOP Sen. Mark Kirk and became the second woman senator from Illinois, the second Asian woman senator in the country’s history and the first double amputee elected to the upper chamber of Congress.
During her first term, Duckworth also became the first senator to give birth while in office, and she was on Joe Biden’s shortlist of potential vice presidents during his successful run for the White House two years ago.
Now, as they fight to keep control over the Senate, Democrats are banking on Duckworth to win reelection against an underfunded and little-known Republican challenger, Kathy Salvi.
Libertarian Bill Redpath from West Dundee is also on the ballot.
“The future of the world depends on us — on Democrats controlling the Senate, Democrats controlling the House, maintaining our leadership in the Illinois legislature,” Duckworth said in her speech in Northbrook. “It all ties together.”
Salvi, a lawyer from Mundelein, emerged from a seven-way GOP primary in June with a little more than 30% of the vote.
Although Salvi has said she expects “full well” to win the November general election, a defeat to Duckworth would be far from the first electoral setback for the Republican nominee and her husband, Al Salvi.
Al Salvi was a Republican state representative for four years in the 1990s, but he lost general elections for U.S. senator in 1996 (against Dick Durbin) and for Illinois secretary of state in 1998 (against Jesse White). Kathy Salvi also lost in a 2006 Republican primary for a U.S. House seat.
She and her aides did not respond to multiple requests for an interview from WBEZ. Salvi’s campaign has employed a conservative political consulting firm which boasts a client list that has included former Vice President Mike Pence and Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and lawyer for former President Donald Trump.
Salvi hits Duckworth for supporting Biden
In a recent debate organized by the Illinois AP Media Editors, Salvi said she was running against Duckworth primarily because she disagrees with the senator’s legislative support of President Joe Biden — who easily carried Illinois in defeating Trump two years ago.
Salvi said Duckworth and the Democratic majority in Congress are letting Biden implement a “socialist, leftist agenda.”
“This is a unique election cycle,” Salvi said. “Our message resonates with all the voters. Inflation is at a 40-year high. And it’s because of the failed leadership of this president and the rubber stamp of his agenda by our junior senator, Tammy Duckworth, which is a disappointment, not only for me, but for many Illinoisans.”
Salvi said it was time for the ruling Democrats of the state to yield to her and other Republicans.
“I would love to see Illinois be a state where people are proud to live in, and the only thing holding us back in the state is poor, single-party government,” she said. “It’s hurting. It’s crushing us here.”
But in a state where Democrats far outnumber Republicans, Duckworth has eagerly highlighted the differences she has with Salvi on virtually all of the biggest political issues of these times, including gun control, abortion and immigration.
In her speech to the Democrats in Northbrook earlier this month, Duckworth talked extensively about the deadly shooting spree at the Fourth of July parade in nearby Highland Park. She cited her own experiences in the military. She lost both legs and shattered her right arm in 2004, after her Blackhawk helicopter was shot down in battle in Iraq.
“Let me just say, I’ve carried an M16,” Duckworth said. “For 23 years, I’ve fired machine guns … I know what an M4 will do to a human body. It is designed to shred and destroy your enemy on the field of battle.
“It is not designed for hunting. It is not designed for target practice. It is designed to kill the enemy, so that they don’t stand back up.”
Duckworth has called for reinstituting a federal ban on assault weapons.
“Our kids deserve to go to school without being terrified whether or not they will come home that day,” the senator said. “And I don’t want to be scrolling on my phone looking for ballistic-proof backpacks to send my kids to school with. That’s not the kind of world I want my two girls to grow up in.”
Salvi said she opposed banning assault weapons or approving any other new laws restricting gun ownership.
Asked about the massacre in Highland Park at the debate, Salvi replied, “I believe that what we have in our state, in our country is a mental health crisis. It was glaringly evident on that day.”
Salvi also accused Duckworth and other Democrats of politicizing the Highland Park tragedy.
“I remind Sen. Duckworth of her words, right after that tragic event — in fact, I was really taken aback,” Salvi said. “I just find it repulsive when elected officials use a time of tragedy in order to push a particular political agenda.”
Salvi said voters in Illinois are concerned about crime. She blamed “the violence that we see on the streets of Chicago” on Democratic Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx, also a Democrat.
“Sen. Duckworth endorsed Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Kim Foxx, who aren’t enforcing the law,” Salvi said. “In fact, they’re undermining the effectiveness of our law enforcement in the city of Chicago.”
And Salvi said she believed the bail reform law in Springfield, which will go into effect at the start of next year, will serve only to “transplant all the troubles that we faced in the dangerous streets of Chicago to the entire state of Illinois.”
Democrats have countered that right-wing criticism of the law is rife with misinformation but changes could be made to it.
Deep divisions on abortion, immigration
Duckworth and Salvi also say they are on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to abortion, which has risen to the forefront of political debate in the country again after the recent U.S. Supreme Court reversed its decades-old position.
The senator says she would vote for “codifying Roe v. Wade into law and making sure that women have the right to make decisions about their own reproductive choice.”
Duckworth said Salvi is far out of touch with the sentiment of people in Illinois on the issue. She said Salvi would not allow for abortion even in cases of rape, incest or threat to the life of the mother.
“Miss Salvi has never been shy about her dangerous anti-choice views on abortion,” Duckworth said. “She’s made it clear that she’s set on taking away women’s freedom and their own health care away from them.”
Salvi did not directly counter Duckworth’s accusation about an exemption for rape, incest or threat to the life of a pregnant woman.
“I am pro-life,” Salvi said. “But just as importantly, I am pro-woman. I have spent my entire life committed to helping women who face crisis pregnancies.”
Asked whether she supports Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham’s proposal to enact a federal abortion ban, Salvi replied, “I support the majority position in the most recent Supreme Court decision, and I believe that it’s rightfully in the hands of states or elected representatives.”
On immigration, Duckworth said she favors increased border security coupled with reforms that would allow for a path to citizenship for the undocumented and additional visas for agricultural and highly skilled workers from abroad.
“Building a wall from sea to shining sea is not a practical solution,” the senator said. “Telling the 11 million undocumented people in this country to, you know, just turn themselves in and go and self-deport — that’s not practical.”
Salvi said immigration would be “one of my principal focuses” as a senator, saying, “We have a humanitarian crises at our border [with Mexico], with unprecedented human trafficking, death and fentanyl coming across the border.”
Dan Mihalopoulos is a reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.