There’s no question that U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk’s string of headline-grabbing verbal gaffes has left some Republicans doubting whether he can win a second term.
But a day after a key GOP fundraiser suggested Kirk should step down, other major party players voiced more optimistic opinions.
“He can survive. I think he’s going to have to demonstrate during the campaign that even though he’s had the stroke he can carry out his duties. Don’t forget we had a president in a wheelchair who did quite well,” said former Republican Gov. Jim Edgar.
“From where I’m standing, somewhere afar, I don’t see any reason for him to drop out. At this point, I’d say, ‘If you wanna run, I’ll support ya.’ ”
Edgar’s vote of confidence came after GOP donor Ron Gidwitz said Tuesday that Kirk should step aside and allow others to run for his seat. Feeling heat from other Republicans, Gidwitz quickly retracted the statement.
Behind the scenes, however, Republicans have calculated the party’s options should Kirk move out of the picture.
That’s following a series of controversial statements from Kirk, including saying into a live microphone that an unmarried member of the U.S. Senate was a “bro with no ho.” Kirk walked back comments that President Barack Obama wanted to “get nukes to Iran.”
Kirk suffered a debilitating stroke in 2012. He returned to the Senate one year later, with much fanfare. The state’s junior senator had to learn how to walk again and has undergone intensive therapies.
Members of the Illinois Republican congressional delegation had already been approached with queries to run against Kirk in a primary, a Republican source said.
Each declined, saying they would run only if Kirk steps down.
Kirk has voiced no interest in doing so. Even if he did and Gov. Bruce Rauner named a replacement, GOP members fear it is too late in the game for a new candidate to be successful.
Kirk talked with supporters and donors from across the state on Wednesday. His campaign said he received strong support for his re-election effort.
“Mark Kirk is a friend and sincere advocate for the hard-working people of Illinois,” U.S. Rep. Peter Roskam, R-Ill., in a statement. “He has the competitive drive to hold this seat and continue his good work.”
On Wednesday, a poll showed Kirk trailing U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth by six percentage points with Kirk at 36 percent and Duckworth at 42 percent. Duckworth and fellow Democrat Andrea Zopp have announced they are running in their party’s primary.
Kirk’s spokesman, Kevin Artl, said the poll, conducted by Public Policy Polling, doesn’t tell the whole story.
“I think it shows the race is a dead heat. I think everyone knows PPP polls tend to oversample on the Democrat side,” Artl said. “It’s a dead heat race as far as we’re concerned.”
Still, those numbers aren’t encouraging given that Kirk is trailing as the incumbent, and that the damage to his numbers appears to have been largely due to his own unforced errors.
“He’s gotta be careful. You don’t want to say something off the wall, and people say: “Geez there’s something really wrong with ya,” Edgar says. “I haven’t heard a groundswell that ‘gee, he’s not up to the job.’ ”
Duckworth had already seized on past Kirk statements, criticizing him for referring to women as “ho’s.” The comments from Gidwitz, though, offer opponents fodder against Kirk from within his own party.
But Edgar said he not only believes Kirk can ride out the recent rough waters, but that he may be in the best position to keep the seat in Republican hands in 2016. Edgar notes that 2016 will be an especially challenging year for any Republican, given that it’s a presidential year. Illinois is still a blue state and Democratic turnout is expected to be high.
What’s crucial to Kirk’s survival is receiving Rauner’s unwavering support, those in the party say. In winning back the governor’s mansion last year, Rauner united what was a fractured and cash-strapped Republican party. So far, the deep-pocketed Rauner has pledged Kirk his support.
He held an event for Kirk in March and is expected to appear with the senator this summer in Springfield during the state fair.
“Without the governorship, Republicans aren’t really a cohesive party,” Edgar said. “The governor is the 800-pound gorilla.”