Standing before the United States Senate, a tall, thin Democratic senator delivered his farewell address before resigning his seat. “I am sure I feel no hostility to you,” he said to his Republican counterparts. “I am sure there is not one of you, whatever sharp discussion there may have been between us, to whom I cannot now say...I wish you well.” It was not easy for Jefferson Davis, who had served in Congress for almost a decade, to leave behind the friendships he had made on the Hill. One of these friendships was with a vibrant Republican senator from New York named William H. Seward, a fierce abolitionist. In past years, William Seward, who later became Secretary of State under Abraham Lincoln, had visited Davis every day as he suffered through a painful illness.
As divided as our politics may be, the arguments dividing Congress today pale in comparison to the problems faced by the two senators some 150 years ago. Jefferson Davis delivered his farewell address on January 21, 1861, twelve days after his home state Mississippi, seceded from the Union. If two men divided on the issue of slavery could set aside their differences in the name of friendship and mutual respect, then what excuse do our politicians today have?
In a time of increased partisanship and gridlock inside the Beltway, the cross-party friendship between Illinois’s senators, Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Mark Kirk, stands out. While they are certainly not the only two senators who maintain a personal bond despite political differences, not many others are as friendly with each other in public. In March, Sen. Kirk claimed that he would not campaign for Durbin’s conservative challenger, Jim Oberweis, before the midterm election in November. Kirk stated that he did not want to damage his working and personal relationship with Durbin to engage in a “partisan jihad.” As expected, Kirk, who often receives criticism from the far-right end of his party for being too moderate, got a thrashing from conservative pundits and talk shows hosts such as former Congressman Joe Walsh, who called Kirk’s statement “unforgivable.”
Less than a month later, Kirk made a complete U-turn and said that he will campaign for Oberweis, a state Senator and dairy magnate, in his attempt to unseat Durbin in November. Despite the delayed endorsement, Oberweis has said that he appreciates Kirk’s support and understands why Kirk initially stated that he wouldn’t campaign for Oberweis. Sen. Kirk himself has said that the reason for his switch is that he would like to “back a candidate for the Senate [who] does not back Harry Reid.” Kirk and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) have been at odds over a battle about whether nuclear waste from several states, including Illinois, can be shipped to the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada.
Regarding whether his endorsement of Oberweis will affect his relationship with Durbin, Kirk said, “I think that he is an old pro, understands how these things work, and my feelings of working well with him have already been clearly expressed...And when I said that I liked working [with Durbin], the press pretty much warped that into an endorsement, which it wasn’t.”
For Mark Kirk, this is a win-win situation. He was attacked by far-right conservative radio hosts after initially refusing to campaign for Oberweis. Kirk has risked being labeled a RINO – Republican in name only – for his support for same-sex marriage and his reputation as a Republican who will occasionally vote with the Democrats. With his own reelection campaign coming up in 2016, Kirk could use a few points with the GOP and its donor base.
Ultimately, the back and forth on whether Kirk would endorse Oberweis will have little effect on the race. Durbin is unlikely to lose his seat in November. Before winning his state Senate seat and the GOP primary, Oberweis, or “Milk Dud,” as pundits affectionately call him because of his ties to the dairy industry, lost five straight elections. Many analysts predict November’s match-up against Oberweis will constitute his sixth loss – Senator Dick Durbin is the current Senate Majority Whip and has over $6 million in campaign funds and a fourteen-point lead in the polls.
To the far right of Illinois’s GOP, Senator Kirk will always be a RINO and a target, but for the time being, he has fulfilled his duties to his party. From the perspective of his Democratic counterpart and friend, Senator Durbin, Kirk is simply doing what any politician would do in his situation. Senator Kirk has proven to be a close friend and a cooperative lawmaker and is ranked third among all senators in co-sponsoring bipartisan bills, according to GovTrack. And when Kirk seeks another term in 2016, his credentials as a pragmatic politician will help him with moderate voters. Having narrowly defeated his Democratic opponent for Senate in 2010, Kirk is aware that he walks a tightrope as a Republican senator in a solidly blue state. This is why since endorsing Oberweis, he has stressed his close personal and working relationship with the well-liked senior senator from Illinois.
Those who considered Kirk’s reversal a sign that nothing can overcome the partisanship of Washington these days should not be overly concerned. Yes, the politics in the Capitol have changed since the days when congressmen of different political persuasions would live in Washington with their families and develop close bonds. The friendship between Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, however, shows that there are exceptions to the norm.