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Steinberg: Andrea Zopp never had a chance

Andrea Zopp, former president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League lost to U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., in the Democratic U.S. Senate primary in Illinois. | Charles Rex Arbogast/AP

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So why was Andrea Zopp thrashed so handily by Tammy Duckworth?

In an election year in many ways defined by issues of race, disenfranchisement and urban violence, you’d think that Zopp — razor-sharp former Urban League CEO, Cook County and federal prosecutor, Harvard grad and boardroom star — might have been perfectly placed to ride the crest of voter outrage straight to Washington.

Yet it was smiling, sleepy Rep. Tammy Duckworth, despite having hatched under the wings of the two least popular politicians of the last decade, Rod Blagojevich and Rahm Emanuel, who skated easily to victory. Zopp spun her wheels mightily but never came close.

What happened? It doesn’t take a political genius to figure out that one.

Duckworth announced her candidacy at the end of March 2015 and started hoovering up endorsements and money. People already knew who she is: a military hero, a disabled Iraqi war vet, a U.S. Army helicopter pilot who lost both legs when her Black Hawk was hit by a rocket-grenade in Iraq in 2004. Despite a not-particularly-distinguished career as an administrator, she still received a ton of glowing press with her roles with the Veterans Administration in Illinois and Washington, and if the Donald Trump phenomenon teaches us anything, it’s that voters flock to the familiar.

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Zopp waited more than a month to jump in. Then, when she failed to get noticed, she started to vent racial grievances. In July, when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee endorsed Duckworth, Zopp lashed out at its “total insensitivity to Chicago African-American women.” On Election Day, Duckworth was leading Zopp in polls 2-1 among African-Americans.

A savvier candidate would have decided that some obscure committee’s endorsement was not the hill to die on. But Zopp, used to pronouncements in the courtroom and the boardroom, seemed to think her resume had earned her the job.

Then again, she had little to lose. A July poll had Duckworth leading with 59 percent an Zopp trailing with 10 percent. Seven months of hard campaigning later, Zopp managed to do better with 64 percent for Duckworth to 25 percent for Zopp.

That vanity candidate, State Sen. Napoleon Harris, the former NFL player, was sucking up a few percentage points of the black vote, didn’t help.

To make matters worse, Zopp had that curse of accomplished people who can’t quite hide the fact, and a lawyerly lack of humility.

“I made a difference in corporate America,” she boasted at one point, apparently under the impression that voters would find that a good thing. She also emphasized criminal justice issues and the black community, which might echo in Chicago, but not so much in the rest of Illinois, which we forget is only 15 percent African-American.

This might be cold comfort to Zopp. But given the odds that U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, holding what is considered the most vulnerable Senate seat in the country, will nevertheless beat Duckworth as handily as he would have beaten Zopp, the loss saves her the cost and effort of eight more months of campaigning. Duckworth must now throw herself into the fray if she hopes to dislodge Kirk, himself rendered slightly heroic by his struggling back from his 2012 stroke.

Kirk has been an erratic and infrequent campaigner. Two candidates with significant disabilities running against each other for Senate has to be, if not a first, then extremely rare in American politics. So in that sense, whoever wins in November will be a victory for inclusion, if nothing else.

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