SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (AP) — The Chicago Tribune endorsed Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth for the U.S. Senate on Friday, arguing that incumbent Republican Mark Kirk is unable to fully do the job due to his ongoing recovery from a 2012 stroke.
"Due to forces beyond his control, Kirk no longer can perform to the fullest the job of a U.S. senator," said the newspaper's editorial board, an influential conservative voice with a long history of endorsing Republicans.
The race between Kirk and Duckworth is viewed as one of a handful across the country that can determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.
Kirk suffered a stroke in 2012 and returned to the Senate in 2013. The Tribune said its editorial board had been "hopeful his recovery was full enough to return him to the Senate as the independent, confident, outspoken and focused leader we had endorsed for general election six times."
"We are saddened to say we did not see that energetic, policy-driven Kirk when we met with him Oct. 3 for an endorsement interview," the editorial board said.
Kirk's campaign responded with a strong rebuke.
"A low-blow and cheap shot by the Chicago Tribune that is not based on fact or reality," Kirk campaign manager Kevin Artl said in a statement, adding that Kirk has been more effective than Duckworth in Congress.
"Kirk created bipartisan support to keep the Export-Import Bank open, saving over 40,000 Illinois jobs," Artl said, referring to the federal agency that finances purchases of U.S. goods from overseas buyers. "He secured millions in funding for law enforcement to crack down on gang violence and he is viewed as a national leader when he bucked his own party and said he could not support Donald Trump."
The newspaper endorsed Duckworth despite noting that Kirk's socially moderate and fiscally conservative positions mirror those of its editorial page, saying Kirk is not "as influential an advocate in Washington as he was for more than a decade."
It is not the first time the Tribune has broken from its tradition of endorsing Republicans in top-ticket races. In 2008, its nod for Barack Obama, a former U.S. senator from Illinois, was the first time it ever endorsed a Democrat for president. This year, it endorsed Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.
Not every editorial board has come to the conclusion that the Tribune has about Kirk. The Champaign News-Gazette endorsed Kirk last month due to "his solid academic background, vast experience, political independence and sound judgment."
The newspaper complimented both candidates' "outstanding personal character.
"Neither has allowed the physical limitations they must endure — Kirk suffered a serious stroke in 2012, Duckworth sustained major combat injuries during the Iraq war — to undermine their determination to remain active in public life," the newspaper said.
In addition to his health, Kirk has come under scrutiny for some of his statements.
Last year, he called unmarried South Carolina GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham a "bro without a ho" and in August he said Obama was acting like the "drug dealer in chief" when the U.S. made a $400 million payment to Iran contingent on the return of U.S. prisoners.
Kirk apologized for his comments about Graham, but has stood by what he said of Obama.