After an expensive and brutal campaign fight between Representative Tammy Duckworth and Senator Mark Kirk, Duckworth won the election by an astounding 14.2 points. This landslide victory for Duckworth is surprising given that “incumbents possess substantial advantages over challengers,” but there are factors before and during the campaign season that contributed to Mark Kirk’s monumental defeat (Herrnson, 266). Kirk’s loss of endorsements from a scandal, the media coverage around the event, and the overall mood among Illinois voters including the coattail effect all led to Tammy Duckworth being chosen to be Illinois’ new junior senator.
One of the most surprising, and possibly scandalous moments during the campaign, was when Kirk “questioned [Duckworth’s family] ties to the American Revolution during a Senate debate” which brought about accusations of him being “‘offensive, wrong, and racist’”. It is important to note that even before this scandal, Kirk had increasingly been receiving poor polling numbers, and an accusation like this, on live television during a debate with Duckworth, hurt his chances of reelection. As Herrnson notes, scandals can be “important in determining an incumbent’s vote share,” and it is certain that this event adversely eroded his support (253). While the scandal was hurtful enough to Kirk’s campaign, the resulting loss of vital endorsements solidified his almost certain destiny to failure. Endorsements are essential to any campaign, and the revocation of support from the Human Rights Campaign and Americans for Responsible Solutions, who then declared they back Duckworth, significantly damaged the incumbent’s campaign (Crowder-Meyer, November 14, 2016).
In addition, the media’s extensive coverage of Kirk’s scandal undermined his reelection bid. First of all, campaign debates are dangerous for incumbents since they “can place a challenger on equal footing with an incumbent,” and this exactly happened during the second debate in which Kirk made a racist remark about his opponent (Herrnson, 241). Following the comments, many media outlets, such as CNN, NPR, and PBS, flocked to cover the event more than they had covered the rest of the campaign. By extensively reporting this topic, the media was agenda-setting and making “the public…view that issue as important” and perhaps even priming this event “to take on greater weight in political judgment, such as voting” (Hayes, 57). Such a discussed statement could have persuaded voters to use this one event, rather than Kirk’s policy views, when voting. Mediated communication is “more trustworthy than direct communication,” so perhaps media users placed greater weight on this information than that from direct communication (Crowder-Meyer, October 21, 2016). Nevertheless, it is clear that the media coverage surrounding the scandal significantly hurt Kirk’s campaign.
Another vital factor contributing to Kirk’s astonishing defeat could have been the coattail effect and the negative mood among Illinois voters. Kirk was elected in 2010 during a political “wave election” that in many ways was a referendum on President Obama and the Democratic Party (Crowder-Meyer, September 23, 2016). Herrnson notes “nationalized elections result in…an unusually large number of challengers getting elected,” and Kirk surprisingly defeated an incumbent Democrat in a traditionally solid Democratic state in 2010 (28). Given that Illinois is a blue state, it would make sense for Kirk to struggle to maintain his seat in 2016. In addition, Hillary Clinton’s significant polling advantage within Illinois and the United States could have also contributed to the coattail effect which might have led voters to vote for Duckworth given that “coattails contribute more to congressional election results in presidential years than does anticipatory balancing.” (Erikson, 570). In addition, the general electorate attitude, especially the direction of Illinois and that of Kirk, was incredibly negative with only 14% thinking Illinois was headed in the right direction and a mere 35% of Illinoisans approving Kirk’s work in Congress. It is very likely coattails and this voter sentiment greatly reduced Kirk’s chances of reelection given “the political setting in a given election year has an impact on incumbents’ prospects for reelection.” (Herrnson, 34).
From devastating scandals to excessive media coverage to coattails and negative voter sentiment, Kirk faced an increasingly difficult task of maintaining his senate seat which is normally an easy undertaking for an incumbent given their traditional advantages (Herrnson, 266). Had these factors not been present in this election, than perhaps, like many of his fellow Republican incumbents in the Senate, Mark Kirk would have won.