HARVEY, Ill. (AP) — A former professional football player-turned-Illinois lawmaker joined the Democratic race for U.S. Senate on Tuesday, setting up a three-way contest for the chance to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, one of Democrats' top targets as they try to retake the chamber.
State Sen. Napoleon Harris returned to his former high school's athletic building in the south Chicago suburb of Harvey to announce he's challenging Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth and former Chicago Urban League CEO Andrea Zopp in the March primary.
Both Zopp and Harris are African-American, leading to speculation they could split the African-American vote and help Duckworth — who has the backing of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and is considered the favorite in the race so far — seal the nomination.
But both candidates rejected that idea, with Zopp saying her reach is "much broader than the African-American community" and Harris saying he has his own base of support.
"You play to win the game," said Harris, who owns a chain of pizza restaurants and was first elected to office in 2012.
Kirk, a former congressman who won his first Senate term in 2010, faces a tougher election climate this time with a presidential race at the top of the 2016 ballot. Illinois last voted for a Republican presidential candidate during George H.W. Bush's landslide victory in 1988, and before Kirk took office, the state had only elected one GOP candidate to the Senate since 1968.
He's also been dogged by gaffes in recent months, including calling Sen. Lindsey Graham a "bro with no ho" because the South Carolina Republican is single. The comment was picked up by a live microphone; Kirk later apologized.
Duckworth, a two-term congresswoman from Chicago's northwest suburbs who lost both legs when her helicopter was shot down in Iraq, raised more money than Kirk in the most recent quarter and has a healthy advantage over Zopp and Harris.
Her supporters, including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, Illinois' highest-ranking Democrat, say she's best candidate to take on Kirk, who suffered a debilitating stroke in 2012.
Kirk campaign manager Kevin Artl said Tuesday that Harris' entrance in the race is a sign Democrats "are clearly uninspired by Rep. Duckworth's lackluster performance as a lawmaker and candidate."
Duckworth, meanwhile, cast the primary battle as helpful in the November general election.
"The more people in the Democratic primary talking about the fact that Mark Kirk has not does his job as a U.S. senator .... is good for Illinois," she said.
Harris was joined Tuesday by supporters including Senate President John Cullerton and several mayors and other elected officials from south suburban Cook County, an area home to a strong Democratic voter base.
Cullerton said he is "totally convinced" that Harris — whom he called "a celebrity of substance" — is the best Senate candidate because of his mix of business, legislative and NFL experience.
Harris said he would focus on improving education and creating jobs. Asked to outline areas where he disagrees with Kirk on policy, he said he would "save those for another day." He also declined to answer questions regarding foreign policy — including whether Illinois and the U.S. should refuse to accept Syrian refugees — saying he's still working on his positions.
Zopp, a former federal prosecutor and Chicago Public Schools board member who's touting her role as the only non-politician in the race, said Harris' entry doesn't change her game plan.
Harris is jumping in months after Zopp and Duckworth and just days before the Nov 30 deadline for candidates to submit campaign petitions. But his supporters said he will have the money and organizational support he needs to mount a serious challenge.
Harris also ran for the seat vacated by ex-U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in 2012 — announcing his bid before he was even sworn in to his Illinois Senate seat. But he withdrew from the race before the special election.
This story has been corrected to reflect the organization is called the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee instead of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee.