SPRINGFIELD, Ill. — U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk formally steps back into the political arena this week with a trip to the Illinois State Fair, his first visit to central Illinois and first appearance as a re-election candidate since his stroke late last year.
As the guest of honor during Republican Day Thursday at the fair, Kirk is campaigning not just for himself but also rallying the cause for other state GOP candidates next year.
“We’re excited about his re-election efforts. His mind and his intellect are there and his ability to do the right thing has never been in question,” said Jack Dorgan, chairman of the Illinois Republican Party. “He’s been a strong standard bearer for the party.”
Kirk, the Illinois GOP’s top officeholder, was first elected to President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat in 2010. Before being sidelined for nearly a year by an ischemic stroke, he played an instrumental role in re-crafting the party’s political strategy, both in revamping fundraising efforts and in working with the Illinois delegation to avoid costly primary matchups, which he refers to as “red on red” warfare.
Kirk’s renewed efforts, many of which will likely be behind the scenes, come at a pivotal time as Republicans work to reclaim the governor’s mansion and win several top-tier congressional races in 2014.
“I think it’s incredibly important to our viability,” Dorgan said. “Any time a U.S. senator gets involved in something people stand up and take note.”
Kirk’s spokesman, Lance Trover, said the senator — a fiscal conservative and social moderate who has broken with his party by supporting gay marriage and gun control— would not be making an endorsement in the 2014 Republican primary for governor.
Trover declined to say whether Kirk would be encouraging Republicans to coalesce behind one candidate early in the primary race, to avoid repeating mistakes of 2010, when a similarly wide primary field fractured resources and support. Four candidate have announced primary bids: Winnetka venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, state Treasurer Dan Rutherford of Chenoa, state Sen. Bill Brady of Bloomington and state Sen. Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale.
The 53-year-old Kirk was left partially paralyzed on his left side by the stroke, causing him to use a four-pronged cane and occasionally a wheelchair for mobility. He has made trips back to his home state with increasing regularity since returning to Congress in January, evidence that he is taking a 2016 bid seriously. In contrast, South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson, who suffered a stroke in 2006, announced he would not be seeking re-election this spring, ending a 28-year career in Congress.
Kirk made his first public appearance since returning to Congress in April, visiting the Metro East area and a Lake County charter school. He returned to the Chicago area over Memorial Day, and again over the fourth of July.
Along with his appearance at Republican Day Rally at the state fair on Thursday, Kirk will also host a job fair for veterans Wednesday with Peoria Republican Congressman Aaron Schock, one of the party’s rising stars.
Kirk attends therapy three days a week while in Washington and at home in Highland Park, Trover said.
The senator plans to stay in Chicago for the majority of the congressional August recess.