On paper, Andrea Zopp seems to have quite a story to tell in her campaign for the Democratic nomination to take on Republican Sen. Mark S. Kirk next fall in Illinois.
After leading Chicago’s Urban League for five years following a career serving on boards for some of the city's largest corporations, Zopp launched her campaign in May at the urging of former White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley and with the support of Rev. Jesse Jackson. But she has bucked her party’s national establishment, which — from the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to EMILY’s List — has mostly lined up behind Illinois Rep. Tammy Duckworth. “I never had the chance to make my case,” Zopp said during an interview in D.C. last month, where she held meetings with potential campaign supporters and Washington-based reporters.
EMILY’s List endorsed Duckworth in April before Zopp officially joined the race, and the DSCC followed a few months later, after the second-term lawmaker seriously out-raised Zopp.
Asked about why the DSCC chose to support Duckworth over Zopp, DSCC spokeswoman Sadie Weiner said, “Tammy Duckworth has spent her career standing up for Illinois families and she is the strongest candidate to beat Mark Kirk who in incredibly vulnerable and has offended one group of people after another every time he opens his mouth.”
Zopp said the groups backing Duckworth have “access to national Democratic donors that I won’t get access too,” but said her network is broad, too, and voters are not that interested in D.C. endorsements.
“The fundamental principal I’ve been talking about since the DSCC endorsed her is that the voters of the state should say who they want to represent them in the party, not politicians or party officials from out of state,” she said.
To that end, some local Democrats have opted to stay out of the primary field, which grew last week to include state Sen. Napoleon Harris, a former professional football player.
In August, the Cook County Democratic Party said it supported an open primary , passing on the opportunity to endorse any candidate. And more recently, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said he would also stay out of the primary.
Republicans defending Kirk cite those developments as evidence that "Duckworth's candidacy continues to divide Democrats."
Zopp's candidacy has created some division between some Chicago Democrats and national politicians.
“There are people in Chicago who want an African-American to replace Mark Kirk,” said one Chicago Democrat close to the city’s congressional delegation who is unaffiliated with any Senate candidate. “A lot of the black leadership is upset about it.”
Zopp said African-Americans make up about a third of the state's primary electorate.
As he began the process of circulating his petitions to get on the ballot, Harris said he has the political operation in place to put up the fight. Others, noting his late entrance into the race, aren't so sure.
“He wants his name out there," said another Chicago Democratic operative who has worked on Congressional races. “I think Zopp's doing what she needs to do, which is raise money so that she can be kind of competitive and provide an alternative to what everyone thinks is a done deal.”
For Duckworth, who is leading in the polls against Kirk, the endorsements from the DSCC and Emily’s List is almost all about being able to tap into financial support. In the last quarter since having both groups on her side, Duckworth raised $1.45 million and ended with $2.85 million in the bank. During the same time period, Zopp raised $439,600 and ended with $816,370 in the bank.
Along with the national support, Duckworth has another advantage: her own compelling personal story. The 47-year-old served in Iraq with the Army National Guard and survived an attack on her helicopter in 2004 which left her disabled.
“Regardless of what she has or hasn’t accomplished in D.C., it’s an amazing and incredibly attractive story to voters and supporters,” said Kelly Dietrich, founder of the Illinois political consulting firm Get Elected. “Now, she’s a new mom and accomplishing an credible amount despite adversity. People feel good about supporting her.”
Zopp’s résumé features spots in top legal roles at companies such as Sara Lee, Sears and Exelon, some of Chicago’s largest corporations. She describes herself as “a progressive who works in business." That, coupled with her time on the board of Chicago Public Schools and a state Commission to Review the Illinois Death Penalty Process, gives her “hands-on experience” she believes the other candidates are lacking, she said.
“We have some real issues I’ve seen from the first row,” she said.