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'Your Parents Came All The Way From Thailand': Senator Wrongly Hits Rival On Heritage

The Illinois Senate race was already likely out of reach for Republicans, and now comments that incumbent GOP Sen. Mark Kirk made about his challenger's heritage and military service are making it that much harder.

In a debate on Thursday night, Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth — an Army helicopter pilot who lost both her legs in a crash in Iraq — talked about her family's long history of service in the military.

"My family has served this nation in uniform, going back to the Revolution. I'm a daughter of the American Revolution. I've bled for this nation. But I still want to be there in the Senate when the drums of war sound," Duckworth said. "Because people are quick to sound the drums of war, and I want to be there to say this is what it costs, this is what you're asking us to do. ... Families like mine are the ones that bleed first."

Kirk, given 30 seconds to respond, was curt, answering only: "I'd forgotten that your parents came all the way from Thailand to serve George Washington." The moderator then moved on to the next question.

The remark was flippant and racially charged but also incorrect. Duckworth was born in Thailand to a Thai mother of Chinese heritage and an American father who was a U.S. Marine. A Mother Jones profile of Duckworth's 2012 House race notes her father, a World War II veteran, traces his heritage back to the American Revolution.

Duckworth didn't respond onstage, but afterward tweeted this photo of her family, including her and her dad in uniform:

Democrats immediately pounced and demanded an apology from Kirk, noting that his own history of military service has been under question. On his campaign website earlier this year, Kirk falsely said he was a "veteran of the Iraq war," when in fact he was in the Navy Reserves and remained stateside.

"Senator Mark Kirk's attack on Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth's family tonight was offensive, wrong, and racist," Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokeswoman Lara Sisselman said in a statement. "Senator Kirk has been caught lying about his military record over ten times, but he was quick to launch false attacks questioning Congresswoman Duckworth's family's long history of serving our country. A struggling political campaign is no excuse for baseless and despicable attacks, and Senator Kirk owes Congresswoman Duckworth and her family an apology."

According to the Washington Post, Kirk's campaign did respond, but not with an apology.

"Senator Kirk has consistently called Rep. Duckworth a war hero and honors her family's service to this country," Kirk spokeswoman Eleni Demertzi said. "But that's not what this debate was about. Rep. Duckworth lied about her legal troubles, was unable to defend her failures at the VA and then falsely attacked Senator Kirk over his record on supporting gay rights."

Later Friday afternoon, Kirk took to Twitter where he did apologize to Duckworth:

Kirk has consistently been seen as the most vulnerable GOP senator, and NPR has rated the contest the most likely to flip all year. Early on, Republicans hoped his moderate profile and history of winning crossover support would help him defy the odds in Illinois, where he represents the bluest state of any Republican in the Senate.

Kirk has said many controversial things already in the course of the campaign. After a $400 million payment to Iran linked to the release of U.S. prisoners, he likened President Obama to "the drug dealer in chief." In talking about helping black communities, he said last year that helping foster a "class of African-American billionaires" would "make the diversity and outcome of the state much better so that the black community is not the one we drive faster through." And in joking about how then-presidential candidate Lindsey Graham would have a rotating first lady if elected, Kirk referred to the unmarried South Carolina GOP senator as a "bro with no ho."

Kirk suffered a severe stroke in 2012 that led to a difficult recovery. But in a 2013 Washington Post column, Kirk wrote that while his left arm and leg don't work as they once did, "my mind is sharp" and "I'm capable of doing the work entrusted to me by the people of Illinois."

While there hasn't been much public polling, all of it has shown Duckworth with a consistent lead. Kirk has tried to tout his independence from Donald Trump, becoming the first vulnerable Republican senator to say he wouldn't support the GOP presidential nominee earlier this year. That led Trump to reportedly slam Kirk as a "loser" in a meeting with Senate Republicans this summer, claiming that he would carry deep-blue Illinois even as Kirk was crushed.

And later Thursday, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway seemed to be almost gleeful about Kirk's latest gaffe — yet another unprecedented tack from the Republican nominee's campaign that has done little to help down-ballot candidates:

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.