Purple Heart recipient and Iraq War veteran Tammy Duckworth has powerful Washington allies cheering on her challenge to one of Democrats' biggest targets of the cycle, first-term Republican Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois.
Since announcing her bid just over a month ago, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has heaped praise on her candidacy, highlighting her "strong track record of results for Illinois" and "incredible personal story." Two potential Senate candidates from her delegation, Reps. Cheri Bustos and Bill Foster, quickly stepped aside, lauding her credentials for the race as they did so. On Thursday, she received a formal endorsement from the influential Democratic group EMILY's List, which called her a "champion for Illinois' middle class, women, and members of the military."
But outside of the Beltway, some Illinois Democrats aren't ready to rally around Duckworth just yet. Looking ahead to the first statewide election without President Obama on the ballot, they say the party needs an African-American candidate to help motivate black voters in 2016, and they think they've found just the woman for the job.
Andrea Zopp—a 57-year-old Harvard law grad with an impressive corporate resume, including time as general counsel for Sears and Exelon—has spent the past four years as president and CEO of the Chicago Urban League. Now she's considering a Senate run of her own.
"I've been looking at the race now for probably a couple months, and talked to a lot of people," Zopp told National Journal in an interview Friday. "We're running a poll to test what I'm hearing from people, and if that poll comes out positive, then I have every strong expectation that I am going to get into the race."
Zopp is being recruited by African-American political leaders, as well as former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley, to forge an uphill bid against Duckworth, who already has raised more than $1.5 million for her campaign.
"My consideration isn't about the turnout," she said. "My consideration is that as an African-American woman I think I bring perspective that the African-American community and also other communities of color will respond to, and I think that perspective is not represented in the race."
Duckworth, the only declared candidate in the race so far, was born in Thailand to an American father and Thai mother, and has some Chinese ancestry. Daley, who has been urging Zopp into the race, said Democrats would be "idiots" to not worry about a potential drop-off in black voters if there were no African-American candidate on the ballot in either of the top two slots.
Zopp isn't the only African-American candidate considering the race. A spokesman for Rep. Robin Kelly, who recently met with the DSCC, told National Journal that she "continues to weigh a possible Senate bid," and was also undeterred by the recent moves by Zopp or EMILY's List. Additionally, state senator and former NFL linebacker Napoleon Harris is rumored to be exploring his chances.
But Zopp's allies say she's the only one of those candidates to present a real insider-outsider argument against Kirk, at a time when social conflicts like the one in Baltimore are raising the need for more community activists in Congress.
"I've been engaged in public service and community engagement for over 30 years," said Zopp. "Jobs, access to public education, the prevalence of guns and violence that are related to it, and the relationships between the police and law enforcement with the community are all issues with which I have personal professional and civic experience and to which I bring a hands-on perspective."
"She's kind of an unknown among the usual suspects, she hasn't been out there doing what Tammy's been doing for 10 years, so it's going to be kind of a clean slate," Daley said. "There's no question in my mind that she has potential for pretty broad support amongst Democrats and moderates because her career is very different. She's got a profile that's got everything from board rooms to community groups."
So does she pose a real threat to Duckworth?
Zopp's allies say establishment support hardly makes for a sure thing in Illinois's Democratic primaries—pointing to Obama's 2004 race as an example.
"Pat Quinn was [Sen. Dick] Durbin's candidate too and he lost the general election," said Daley. "I don't think there's some great political machine that's behind Tammy Duckworth that's going to make her senator "¦ this is very much a Washington perspective right now."
Durbin, for his part, has said he doesn't plan to endorse in the primary, but told Politico recently that he believed Duckworth was "the most formidable opponent" against Kirk. Illinois Democrats say his preference for Duckworth, with whom he has a close personal relationship, goes without saying, and is a significant advantage to Duckworth. Durbin's office did not respond to a request for comment.
Illinois Democratic consultant Tom Bowen said Duckworth's early advantages, including the unofficial support of the state's senior senator, made Zopp or any other candidate's efforts especially challenging.
"I think Tammy is, in a Democratic primary, one of the strongest candidates in the entire state, probably the clearest frontrunner in a statewide democratic primary that anyone's seen in the modern era," Bowen said. "She's run two times, she has a million dollars on hand, a national fundraising network, support from an Illinois senior senator, and a base of support among a really crucial part of the democratic constituency in the suburbs. I don't think she's in very much trouble at all."
Duckworth's campaign did not respond to requests for comment.