Why Kirk is now campaigning for Oberweis for U.S. Senate

Written By By Lynn Sweet Washington Bureau Chief Posted: 04/17/2014, 07:51pm
Array Sen. Mark Kirk R-Ill. in a reversal talks about how he will now campaign for Republican Senate candidate Jim Oberweis Wednesday, April 16, 2014 during a press conference at Northwestern Memorial Hospital/Prentice Women's Hospital. | Michael Schmidt/Sun-Times

After distancing himself from GOP Senate nominee Jim Oberweis last month — and saying he wanted to “preserve” his relationship with Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and not engage in a “partisan jihad” — Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., in a switch said Wednesday he will campaign for Oberweis.

“I was already at the Lake County Republican dinner last week with him,” said Kirk.

In discussing his newfound willingness to stump for the longshot Oberweis, who faces off with Durbin in November, Kirk on Wednesday did not mention Oberweis by name in citing two main reasons:

Kirk said he wants to support a fiscal conservative and oust Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., because Kirk is at odds with him over an Illinois nuclear waste issue. If the GOP picks up six seats to gain control of the Senate, Reid is no longer in charge.

Even before his March 24 Durbin-friendly comments, conservatives were unhappy with Kirk because he is one of the very few moderate Senate Republicans willing now and then to vote with the Democrats who control the chamber.

The Oberweis reversal comes after Kirk was blistered on Illinois conservative talk radio and blogs for his decision not to stand up for Oberweis — risking punishment in the form of a 2016 GOP Illinois primary challenger.

Here’s how this started.

On March 24, Kirk and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, were together in Chicago and I asked them if they would be seeing or campaigning for Oberweis.

“I’m going to be protecting my relationship with Dick and not launching into a partisan jihad that hurts our partnership to both pull together for Illinois,” Kirk replied.

Durbin and Kirk have grown close since Kirk’s stroke, which kept him out of the Senate for almost a year. Durbin called Kirk to thank him for his kind words. Kirk’s comments got play in every Illinois media market, a nice boost for Durbin.

Durbin and Kirk appeared together on Thursday morning in Washington. Kirk did not tell Durbin anything had changed. Their informal nonaggression pact seemed intact. And that was that, until Tuesday, when Kirk told Michael Calhoun, a reporter for the Illinois Radio Network, “I will be campaigning for Jim Oberweis.”

On Wednesday, Kirk was asked about campaigning for Oberweis at a press conference at Prentice Women’s Hospital-Northwestern Memorial Hospital, where Kirk unveiled his “stroke agenda.”

“I would like to back a candidate for the Senate that does not back Harry Reid,” Kirk said, citing a long-running battle Reid has been waging to prevent nuclear waste from Illinois and other states being shipped to the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Repository in Nevada.

Kirk went on to say he was backing Oberweis because “he is a fiscal conservative” and “we need more fiscal conservatives.”

I asked Kirk how this preserved his relationship with Durbin.

“I think that he is an old pro, understands how these things work, and my feelings of working well with him have already been clearly expressed,” Kirk said. “And when I said that I liked working [with Durbin], the press pretty much warped that into an endorsement, which it wasn’t.”

Oberweis’ new spokesman Dan Curry said: “We welcome the support of any Illinoisian — elected official or otherwise — who joins us in bringing back jobs and prosperity to our state after so many years of decline.”

Durbin spokesman Ron Holmes said: “We’re hoping that Sen. Kirk’s comments won’t become a distraction from the bipartisan work he and Sen. Durbin are doing in Washington to benefit the people of Illinois.”

Email: lsweet@suntimes.com

Twitter: @lynnsweet

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