NEWS
11/08/2016 17:17 EST | Updated 11/09/2017 00:12 EST

US Rep. Duckworth unseats Illinois GOP US Sen. Mark Kirk

CHICAGO — Democratic U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth unseated Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk on Tuesday, becoming the second woman to represent Illinois in the chamber and delivering a win that her party is banking on as it attempts to retake control of the Senate.

The two-term congresswoman from Hoffman Estates entered the race a heavy favourite, as Illinois has long backed Democrats for statewide office, especially in presidential election years.

Speaking at a victory party in Chicago, Duckworth recalled the day 12 years ago when the helicopter she was co-piloting in Iraq was shot down. She lost both legs but survived thanks to members of her unit who carried her lifeless body to safety, one of whom was in the crowd to help celebrate.

"Just as I try every day to live up to the sacrifice my buddies made to carry me off that battlefield, I will go to work in the Senate looking to honour the sacrifice and quiet dignity of all those Illinoisans who are facing challenges of their own," she said.

"I believe in an America that doesn't give up on anyone who hasn't given up on themselves."

Minutes earlier, Kirk told supporters gathered at a party in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook that he called Duckworth to congratulate her and invited her to a join him for a beer at Chicago's Billy Goat Tavern.

"This beer summit will show kids across Illinois that opponents can peacefully bury the hatchet after a tough election, and that what unites us as Americans is much stronger than what divides us," Kirk said.

Kirk worked for months to convince voters that he's independent of his party by criticizing GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump as "racist" and "delusional" and talking up his record of breaking from Republicans on issues such as gun control and gay marriage.

Kirk also hurt his own campaign with a series of controversial statements. He had to apologize to Duckworth last month after mocking her immigrant background — she was born in Bangkok to a Chinese-Thai mother and American father — and her family's military history during a debate. Two organizations withdrew their endorsements, calling the remarks racist.

That was enough to persuade Charles Hawley, a psychiatrist from the central Illinois town of Mahomet, to cast his ballot for Duckworth instead of Kirk.

"It just sort of stuck with me," the 49-year-old said just after voting at Lake of the Woods County Park in Mahomet, about 10 miles west of Champaign. "It was hard to get past."

Kirk also had apologized for referring to South Carolina U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, who's unmarried, as a "bro with no ho," and was criticized for saying President Barack Obama was acting like "the drug dealer in chief" when his administration delivered $400 million cash to Iran contingent on the release of American prisoners.

Duckworth campaigned on a pledge to help middle- and working-class families, often sharing her own compelling personal story. She said her family struggled to get by and had to use food stamps after her father lost his job.

Duckworth pledged Tuesday to push to make college more affordable, create jobs and ensure veterans are getting the care they were promised.

Duckworth served as director of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs after losing her first bid for Congress in 2006. In 2009, Obama appointed her to a leadership post at the federal VA.

Kirk, whose 2010 election made him only the second Republican to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate in more than three decades, suffered a stroke in 2012. He battled questions during the race about whether he was still healthy enough to do the job.

Mike Jobson, 61, of Mahomet, backed Kirk based on one reason: "Government is too big. We want to get the power back in our hands."

He also said he thinks Kirk "has his heart in the right place."

Democrats were so confident in Duckworth's odds they pulled back on planned TV airtime in the final weeks of the campaign to invest in states where the polls were tighter.

She follows Carol Moseley Braun, who in 1992 became the first woman elected to the Senate from Illinois.

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Associated Press reporter David Mercer in Mahomet, Illinois, contributed to this report.