U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, already in a battle for his political career, was delivered a staggering blow on Tuesday after a major GOP donor suggested the North Shore Republican step down.
Ron Gidwitz, a one-time gubernatorial candidate and fundraising chairman in Gov. Bruce Rauner’s campaign, told Crain’s Chicago Business that Kirk should relinquish his Senate seat following a series of verbal gaffes that have captured national headlines.
Gidwitz quickly attempted to retract the statement, after it prompted a mad scramble among Republican politicians. Gidwitz acknowledged he made the comments, according to the report.
“I do not believe he will be a U.S. senator in 2017 and, as top of the ticket, he could cause collateral damage [to other Republican candidates]. I call on him to step aside and allow other Republicans to seek his seat,” Gidwitz told the publication.
Kirk’s campaign shrugged off the criticism, pointing to the retraction and saying that Republican heavy hitters still backed him.
“Mark and Ron have had a strained relationship for years. Ron’s initial comments and subsequent retraction don’t surprise us at all,” said Kirk campaign spokesman Kevin Artl.
Still, the comments were unquestionably damaging given Kirk’s recent public relations struggles and the fact that he already has two Democratic opponents.
Gidwitz did not return repeated telephone calls from the Chicago Sun-Times.
Gidwitz is known as a prolific fundraiser and pragmatic political strategist, throwing his support behind candidates who he believes have the best chance at victory. In the most recent race for governor, Gidwitz abandoned his previous loyalty to state Sen. Kirk Dillard and moved behind Rauner.
Last spring, Gidwitz headed an effort to raise money for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s digital advertising. Emanuel is a Democrat.
Those still supporting Kirk include Rauner, the state’s Republican party, as well as the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
“Senator Mark Kirk has my unwavering support,” said Tim Schneider, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. “His record of independent leadership is exactly what Illinois needs.”
Rauner’s office confirmed the senator could still count the governor as a supporter. Rauner held an event on Kirk’s behalf in March.
“We are 100% behind Senator Kirk and look forward to highlighting Tammy Duckworth’s power hungry partisan record that will be unacceptable to Illinois families,” Ward Baker, executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement.
Duckworth, a north suburban congresswoman, and Andrea Zopp are vying for the Democratic nomination to take on Kirk.
Since Kirk suffered a stroke in 2012, he has faced physical obstacles, including struggles with speech and having to learn to walk again. But it has been his comments that have gained the most attention, including when he was caught on a live microphone calling the unmarried U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a “bro with no ho.” Kirk added: “That is what we’d say on the South Side.”
Following the Iran nuclear deal, Kirk said President Barack Obama wants “to get nukes to Iran.”
Kirk has repeatedly apologized for his statements.
But on Tuesday, it was Gidwitz doing the backtracking. He pulled back his comments, then rendered his support for Kirk.
Onetime Illinois GOP chair Pat Brady said Republicans must be unified behind Kirk if he is to retain their party’s seat.
“I fully support Mark, I think a lot of people do. He’s been a great senator for the state, he’s been one of the leads on this Iran deal. He’s been great for Lake Michigan. He’s been a great senator,” said Brady. “We all need to be behind him if he’s gonna win. It’s going to be tough in 2016, it’s a presidential year. I think we all need to behind him.”