I’m not counting Mark Kirk out.
Even though he didn’t show up at the Illinois State Fair’s Republican Day in Springfield this week, saying he was too busy working on bipartisan opposition to President Barack Obama’s Iran deal.
Even though the first-term U.S. senator from Illinois is viewed as the “most vulnerable” of candidates up for election in 2016, according to the Rothenberg & Gonzales Political Report. (It calls the race a tossup/leans Democratic between Kirk vs. Democratic front-runner Rep. Tammy Duckworth.)
And even though Kirk has dug himself into multiple holes by offering unfiltered observations about arresting gang members en masse (never mind probable cause) or jokingly calling his unmarried Senate colleague a “bro with no ho” (claiming “That’s what we’d say on the South Side” even though he hails from the ritzy North Shore.)
In years spent reporting on Kirk across multiple terms in Congress and a Senate run, I admit my general impression of him was that of an entitled know-it-all. Then again, that’s a bipartisan description I could apply to a number of Democrats too.
So, why am I not counting him out in what may be his toughest race ever in a presidential year in a blue state?
Because the optics of this 2016 election so far are a veritable fun-house mirror where conventional political assumptions are distorted by facts on the ground.
No. 1 fact on the ground is Donald Trump leading in Republican polls though every word out of his mouth launches yet another grenade. Trump is giving the GOP fits. But also a weird kind of hope that they have snatched momentum away from Democrats whose presumed nominee, Hillary Clinton, may not have destiny on her side after all.
Moreover, Illinois’ first Republican governor in 12 years, Bruce Rauner, affirms his support for Kirk and has millions to back it up.
Meanwhile, Kirk, hobbled by a 2012 stroke, these days shows a more human side in the face of adversity.
“I had always been a glass-half-empty kind of guy, a believer in Murphy’s Law,” he told the Tribune in 2013. “I’m different from what I was. My left leg and left arm might never work like they once did, but my mind is sharp. I’m capable of doing the work entrusted to me by the people of Illinois, but I am forever changed. I’m an optimist now, grateful for every blessing.”
Both Kirk and Duckworth must survive primary challenges first. He, a moderate, from the conservative wing of his party. And she, a two-term member of Congress, from former Urban League president Andrea Zopp, among others. But if Kirk and Duckworth end up facing each other in next year’s general election, hold no pity-party for either. Not for her, a combat veteran, who lost both legs and the use of one arm in Iraq. And not for him.
As the saying goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
It’s too early to count Kirk out.
Follow Carol Marin on Twitter: Follow @CarolMarin