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Tammy Duckworth speaks at a City Club of Chicago event in May 2015. | Brian Jackson/For the Sun-Times

Sen. Kirk spotlights lawsuit to slam Rep. Duckworth

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WASHINGTON — Sen. Mark Kirk’s political team is trying to portray likely rival Rep. Tammy Duckworth as a hack or worse, with their hook a long-pending civil lawsuit filed by two workers complaining about how Duckworth treated them when she was the director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs.

The lawsuit, before a state court judge in downstate Union County, is up for a routine status hearing on Tuesday — and it is at the center of Kirk’s first coordinated attack against Duckworth.

The Kirk campaign, the Illinois Republican Party and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have been working for months to throw a spotlight on this case because it lets them link Duckworth to imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who appointed her to the spot in 2006.

On Monday, the NRSC released a hard-hitting video ad pegged to the lawsuit, which was dismissed in 2008 after it was first filed in a federal court. In an effort to keep it alive, the two staffers at the Anna Veterans’ Home in southern Illinois refiled it in a state court, where it has been pending.

The black and white film noir video uses a narrator who sounds like he could have been voicing the opening of an episode of “The Untouchables.”

The narrator starts it off saying, “This is the story of another Chicago politician heading to court,” over a picture of Duckworth and Blagojevich.

The video continues, “Corrupt Governor Rod Blagojevich appointed Tammy Duckworth to lead the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. Her job was to care for veterans. They were counting on her. Instead she ignored cases of mismanagement.

“She even tried to fired a whistleblower and threatened another. Intimidation. Silencing Whistleblowers. A Chicago politician. If you liked Blagojevich, then you’ll love Tammy Duckworth.”

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Though the Web buy is a modest $10,000, the video is the culmination of the Kirk strategy to tarnish Duckworth’s reputation.

Duckworth left the Illinois VA in 2009 when President Barack Obama tapped her for a top position at the Department of Veterans Affairs. Kirk and Duckworth are retired military officers who focus in Congress on veterans’ care. The Kirk team wants to erode Duckworth’s standing on a matter the senator is likely to highlight as the campaign unfolds.

The case is coming as Kirk’s bid for a second term is facing a rough patch.

Kirk’s own loose lips have created a string of damaging quotes Democrats are using against him — making his tough 2016 situation even more challenging. Kirk is seen as one of the most vulnerable Republicans running next year because Illinois turns out a strong Democratic vote in presidential election years.

Last week, an influential Illinois Republican, Ron Gidwitz, told Greg Hinz of Crain’s Chicago Business that Kirk should step down and be replaced by another candidate. Gidwitz recanted after he got beat up by Kirk allies.

“Every time Kirk hits a bump in the road, which has become a weekly occurrence at this point, they immediately start talking about a case that already had been dismissed in full or in part three times,” said Matt McGrath, a Democratic Party of Illinois staffer who functions as a Duckworth spokesman.

Contrary to what the Kirk campaign and other Republicans have been saying, there is no trial starting on Tuesday. The trial date is April 4, 2016.

Still, Illinois Republican Party Chairman Timothy Schneider is planning two press conferences on Tuesday — one at party headquarters in the Loop, another in a conference call — to whip up interest in the case.

Duckworth, as a former state official, is being represented in this case by Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. The Republicans are trying to portray this as if this were out of the ordinary, but it is not.

“Under Illinois law, our office represents all state officials and employees in litigation,” Madigan spokeswoman Eileen Boyce said.

Kirk and his allies have been pushing the notion that somehow Duckworth should be showing up at this status hearing on Tuesday. Defendants in civil cases such as these rarely come to court on status calls.

“None of the parties to the case are required to attend status hearings like the hearing scheduled for Tuesday,” Boyce said.

In any event, Duckworth is otherwise occupied.

She was scheduled to depart Monday night for her first trip to Israel and the West Bank along with 21 other House Democrats. The visit, to run through Aug. 10, will include briefings with top Israeli and Palestinian officials, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The trip is paid for by the American Israel Education Foundation, a group that is affiliated with AIPAC, the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Kirk is very close to AIPAC and Netanyahu. He holds himself out as one of Israel’s strongest defenders in Congress. He is vehemently opposed to the Iran nuclear deal; Duckworth is undecided.

Follow Lynn Sweet on Twitter: @LynnSweet

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