In an unusually uncompetitive race for the U.S. Senate in Illinois, there is unusually harsh rhetoric coming from a major party candidate.
The contest between incumbent Democrat Dick Durbin and Republican Mark Curran is on no national watch list at all.
Curran is a former Lake County sheriff. During a crowded primary early this year, Curran said his experience would allow him to attract voters and help downballot Republican candidates through the strength of his candidacy, particularly in the Chicago collar counties, which are trending bluer since President Donald Trump was elected in 2016. But Curran has adopted tones and stances more common among the conservative base.
"Black Lives Matter is an evil entity. I've never supported Black Lives Matter. They're in bed with the abortion industry, and defund police, and they stand for so many evil things," said Curran during a virtual town hall for central Illinois Republican voters last month.
He tried to undercut African American support for Democrats. Curran said the Democratic Party harmed Blacks through public housing policies, and support for Planned Parenthood clinics in inner cities to encourage abortions.
"They've done everything to kill the Black family," Curran said.
Curran claims President Trump is changing that dynamic through his criminal justice reforms. Curran also attacked Durbin’s record on working for minorities.
"Dick Durbin has done nothing for Blacks. You go to East St. Louis, Illinois, where Dick Durbin grew up, and I would submit to you that may be the worst city in all of America. I've never seen anything like it," said Curran. "I've lived on the Southwest Side of Chicago. I lived near the projects. I went into the projects to find witnesses as a prosecutor. I don't know any city like East St. Louis. And that's his hometown. That's what he thinks of the Blacks and the minorities."
East St. Louis has one of the nation's highest murder rates per capita. The city's population has plummeted from a peak of more than 80,000 people in the 1950s, to just over 26,000 people last year, after decades of declines in the manufacturing industry and white flight to other communities.
The mayor of East St. Louis strongly disagreed with the Republican candidate's assessment of his city.
"Mr. Curran's degrading remarks about our city are profoundly offensive and demonstrate a total lack of understanding of the complexity of the challenges we face," said Mayor Robert Eastern III. "He doesn't know the first thing about what Black communities need, and it shows. Mr. Curran would do well to blather less and listen more."
Eastern said he believes Durbin has a "vested interest" in the future of East St. Louis, and thinks the incumbent's heart is still in the community--though he now lives in Springfield.
"East St. Louis did not get in its condition overnight, and it will take strong leadership at the local and federal level to bring about change," said Eastern.
Bob Bradley, a retired Illinois State University professor, said Curran’s attacks ignore the Democratic Party's efforts to improve Blacks' access to voting, education, credit, and safe housing.
"All those types of things, essentially, come from a variety of governmental programs, that essentially Democrats pushed through," Bradley said.
Lane Crothers, another Illinois State University political expert, said Senate candidates usually run more toward the center in a diverse state like Illinois, with both large urban and rural voting blocs.
"People tend to be compelled to run a somewhat moderate line, if only because they need statewide support if they expect to win statewide office," Crothers said.
That was the stance taken by Sen. Mark Kirk, the Illinois Republican and social moderate defeated by Tammy Duckworth in 2016. Other Illinois Republicans vying for state offices have similarly held more moderate views on social issues.
But Bradley said that traditional logic may no longer hold true, even in a state like Illinois. He said sentiments such as those expressed by Curran aren't outside the Republican Party's mainstream today.
"I would be astounded, except I've heard similar things by other people running for federal office," said Bradley.
Bradley said Republicans have embraced other candidates, like QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene in Georgia, who espouse similar talk.
Until recently, accepted political wisdom avoided violent rhetoric and personal attacks directly from a candidate. Campaigns have traditionally used surrogates on the attack. Curran violates that norm as well.
"Dick Durbin is really not a good guy. He's a really, really, bad guy. And I don't say that about people, just because they have a 'D' next to their name, that they're bad. You know, a lot of them just don't get it," said Curran. "But this is a guy that, he would cut your neck and sleep like a baby."
Curran said while the political left has taken to the streets, America hasn't yet seen the right fully roused. But he said it's in the DNA of the people living in the more conservative central and southern Illinois "not to go down without a fight." He suggested portions of the country may succeed in the future.
"They're not going to go quietly in the night. They're not ready to surrender. This is their America," Curran said. "You know, people died for it, and their ancestors died for it. And you know, these leftists that want to destroy America - and that's why they want open borders, because they want people who have no respect or appreciation for the heritage of this country. No. Not in our America. Not in my America. I'll die first."
Political scientists suggest Curran's remarks are in keeping with the more strident, belligerent tones Republican candidates have adopted over the past decade. Crothers said Curran's "fighting words" approach something one might hear from QAnon or the far-right Proud Boys--almost.
"There is this spectrum of our politics out there, of some very angry, very aggressive people, who are very, very close to engaging in or calling for actual violence, and that's a very different United States if we go that path," said Crothers.
Curran believes he can sweep the southern two-thirds of the state, pull off victories in the collar counties, and perhaps even secure 25 percent of the vote in heavily Democratic Cook County on the coattails of Republican State's Attorney candidate Pat O'Brien, who was polling around 33% against Democratic incumbent Kim Foxx last month in a GOP-commissioned poll.
"Our message, send a sheriff to Washington. Send a sheriff to Congress. That resonates with people," he said.
Other Republicans acknowledge the Chicago suburbs and collar counties are the key to any statewide race. They also say it’s a tough year there because President Trump has lost a lot of support from Chicago suburban women.
Curran had just over $35,000 cash on hand at the end of the last reporting period, compared to Durbin's $5.5 million. He acknowledges he doesn't have the cash to launch a major statewide ad blitz, but believes he has grassroots momentum.
In a statement, Durbin's campaign manager Greg Bales suggested Curran consider "withdrawing from the public eye for a bit."
"It wasn't long ago that people with more stature than Mark Curran resigned from office for saying similarly disparaging comments about Illinois communities and the people that live in them," said Bales. "If Curran is looking to continue to rehearse his best Donald Trump impersonation, we'll keep a look out for his tweets."
They also sent along a link to a Washington Post article on other Republicans who have talked about East St. Louis.
When sent transcriptions of several of Curran's quotes used in this story and asked for additional comment or context, Curran campaign manager Linda Prestia sent an e-mail confirming the transcriptions were accurate.
Green Party candidate David Black, Libertarian Danny Malouf, and independent Willie Wilson also are running for U.S. Senate this November.
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