The Human Rights Campaign's endorsement of Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders in January triggered backlash, and the top LGBT lobbying group is once again the center of hot debate because of its latest pick.
But his Democratic challenger, U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, has a 100 score in the 113th Congress, her first term in Congress, and more cosponsorships than Kirk of pro-LGBT legislation in the current session, the 114th.
Several commentators have excoriated the endorsement this week. Slate's Mark Stern, a blogger on LGBT issues, called it "an unforced error of astonishing ineptitude." Daily Kos contributor David Nir termed it "shameful" and "rank idiocy," designed to "keep donations flowing from corporations and wealthy gay Republicans." At Trans Griot, Monica Roberts described it as "another glaring example of HRC political malpractice," comparable to the group's endorsement of incumbent Republican Sen. Al D'Amato of New York over Democratic challenger Chuck Schumer in 1998 (Schumer won).
The HRC endorsement of Hillary Clinton for president also sparked objections, including from a rival for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who called the HRC an "establishment" organization, something he later walked back. Sanders said it was the group's leadership that was establishment, not the group itself.
A writer for The New Republic reacted to the Kirk endorsement with this headline, "The Human Rights Campaign Is Proving Bernie Right."
He said Duckworth's qualifications stand as one of the reasons for the outrage over the Kirk endorsement. "By all accounts, Duckworth is an exceptional candidate," Eric Sasson wrote on The New Republic's website. "She is an Iraq War veteran who was wounded in battle; the first Asian-American woman elected to Congress in Illinois; the first disabled woman to be elected to the House of Representatives, ever. If there ever was a candidate that an organization accused of having a diversity problem should not be opposing, it's Tammy Duckworth."
But critics also say it's crucial for the LGBT rights movement and progressive causes in general to restore a Democratic majority in the Senate. "Even if one were to argue that Kirk's record is acceptable, having his party retain control of the Senate decidedly is not," Sasson wrote. "With the Republican presidential field in Trumpian disarray, control of the Senate is very much in play in 2016. In fact, Kirk is one of the most (if not the most) vulnerable senators up for reelection. One would like to assume that the powers that be at HRC are aware of how much more favorable a Democratic Senate would be on LGBT issues."
HRC president Chad Griffin responded with a column published by the Independent Journal Review, an online opinion platform. "HRC has always aimed to make LGBT equality a bipartisan issue," he wrote. "That's why HRC is, and always has been, a bipartisan organization. In fact, we have never in our history won a major legislative battle without bipartisan support. Today, that bipartisan support is all the more important when the threshold for passing anything through the Senate is 60 votes. The truth is we need more cross party cooperation on issues of equality, not less.
"So when members of Congress vote the right way and stand up for equality -- regardless of party -- we must stand with them. We simply cannot ask members of Congress to vote with us, and then turn around and try to kick them out of office."
He noted Kirk's various pro-LGBT positions and added that when the senator returned to work in November 2013 after recovering from a stroke, the first speech he made was about the need for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act. "Nine other Republicans eventually voted for the bill, which would not have been possible without his leadership," Griffin said. Although passed by the Senate, ENDA failed to get a hearing in the House, and it has now been superseded by the Equality Act.
JoDee Winterhof, HRC's senior vice president of policy and political affairs, also defended the endorsement in a statement to The Advocate. "HRC has always been a bipartisan organization and when incumbents stand up for equality -- regardless of party -- HRC stands with them, she said. "At a time when many in his party are trying to roll back our rights, Sen. Kirk has worked to move the GOP in a pro-equality direction, and we will need such bipartisan leadership if we ever hope to pass laws like the Equality Act.
"HRC's scorecard is one of several criteria used to evaluate members of Congress, but it doesn't capture their full record. For example, Sen. Kirk's score from the last Congress does not reflect his current cosponsorship of the Equality Act. And because the scorecard reflects the particular mix of votes and cosponsorships that occur in each chamber, scores in the House and Senate are not comparable."
The only other Republican to receive an HRC endorsement so far in this election cycle is Rep. Bob Dold, also of Illinois, who was the first House Republican -- and the first in either chamber of Congress -- to cosponsor the Equality Act.
Duckworth campaign spokesman Matt McGrath responded to the controversy by asserting her continued support for LGBT rights. "Tammy is proud to have earned a 100 percent rating from the Human Rights Campaign as well as taking a lead role in introducing the Equality Act," he said in a statement to The Advocate. "She has worked to strengthen LGBT protections for both students and federal workers because it's the right thing to do, not to earn endorsements. As senator, Tammy will continue to serve as a leader for equality to ensure basic civil rights for LGBT Americans at home, school and the workplace."