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
Updated: May 21, 2014 6:17AM
After U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., suffered a major stroke in early 2012, a whispering campaign quickly followed.
Reporters queried. Political operatives impatiently pushed.
Would he come back? Could he come back? Shouldn’t he resign if he couldn’t return yet?
Throughout the year that Kirk was recovering and not in office, a prominent politician emerged as one of his biggest defenders, frequently commenting that Kirk deserved the public’s patience and time to recover.
It wasn’t a Republican. It was U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, our state’s senior senator.
That’s the kind of thing that goes deeper than politics; it’s the kind of thing one doesn’t forget.
So now that Durbin is facing a general election challenge in November, it’s not surprising that Kirk wouldn’t want to actively push anyone competing against Durbin — much less state Sen. Jim Oberweis, R-Sugar Grove, who is not cut from the same Republican cloth.
What was surprising was that Kirk said it out loud.
Doing so drew noisy pushback from conservatives who see Durbin as a hyperpartisan surrogate of President Barack Obama.
Kirk saw where this could quickly head. He could be seen as too liberal or be slammed as a so-called RINO — Republican in Name Only. An act of bipartisanship would be construed as his going soft.
In other words: a strong primary challenger could emerge, and 2016 isn’t that far around the corner for Kirk to be thinking campaign.
Actively backing someone like Oberweis, who is generally not embraced by women, moderates and independents whom Kirk needs in a general election, could equally backfire.
This is Kirk’s conundrum.
Names of possible contenders who already are bantered about — including rising star U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill. — now become more of a threat.
And recall the dustup that happened in early 2013 in Illinois. It was Oberweis who spearheaded the effort to oust Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady from his post following Brady’s public support for same-sex marriage. It was Kirk who stood by Brady, and Kirk soon became a rare Republican U.S. senator to come out in support of same-sex marriage.
As we learn again and again in Illinois, winning a Republican primary is different from winning a statewide election. That’s why we saw candidates like GOP gubernatorial nominee Bruce Rauner staying away from issues like same-sex marriage and not trumpeting his pro-choice stance during the primary.
Now in the general election, we start seeing Rauner’s wife cutting campaign commercials and declaring she’s a Democrat.
Last week, Kirk changed course, saying he could be more active for Oberweis, after all.
His staff made the distinction this way: “As Senator Kirk has said, he supports and will campaign with the IL GOP ticket, as he has with Bruce Rauner and others,” a Kirk spokesperson said last week in an email. “Senator Kirk agrees with Jim Oberweis that it is important for elected officials to maintain positive relationships to benefit our state, and also recognizes that there are real policy differences between the parties, such as taxes and job growth, which merit serious debate.”
Kirk didn’t endorse anyone in the Republican gubernatorial primary race. But on the night of the March election a few weeks ago, he turned up at Rauner’s celebration party declaring that Rauner had the right combination for Illinois: a social moderate and a fiscal conservative.
Kirk was clearly pointing to himself as the model. And not Oberweis.
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