SPRINGFIELD, Ill. – Republican Mark Kirk has stepped on a political landmine of his own creation, leaving him as damaged as his Democratic opponent in the race for an Illinois Senate seat once held by President Barack Obama.
Kirk, a 21-year veteran in the Navy Reserve, was caught exaggerating his military record. He claimed an award he didn’t win. He mentioned serving in overseas conflicts while he was safely in the United States. He stretched the facts when talking about combat and coming under fire. And his troubles don’t end there: Even his references to being a teacher are being questioned.
Two months ago, it was Kirk’s Democratic opponent, Alexi Giannoulias, who was on the ropes. Federal regulators had taken over his family’s Chicago bank, Broadway Bank, which had grown insolvent because of bad loans and a bad economy. Stories about the bank lending money to criminals were resurrected, leading Republicans to start calling Giannoulias a “mob banker.”
Illinois voters now find themselves with one candidate who puffed up his credentials and one with an iffy banking record, both of them seeking a seat that former Gov. Rod Blagojevich is accused of trying to sell to the highest bidder. The Giannoulias-Kirk contest is one of the highest-profile Senate races in the country. Obama held the seat for four years before winning the White House, and a Democratic loss would be a major embarrassment to the administration.
“To me, it seems like we’re locked in a race of the lesser of two evils,” said Jerry Stocks, Republican chairman for Macon County, in central Illinois.
Stocks said he recently took Kirk’s picture out of the window at party headquarters.
“Financial supporters in my county have pledged they will not vote for Kirk,” Stocks said. “Veterans have contacted me to complain about him. If I took a roll call of my precinct committeemen it would not bode well for Rep. Kirk.”
Some Kirk supporters argue that Kirk will survive. The Republican’s backers say he is a moderate, five-term congressman with years of experience as a Navy intelligence officer, while Giannoulias is a 34-year-old former banker serving his first term in office and best known for his friendship with Obama.
“When the dust settles, Mark Kirk will continue to enjoy a great deal of trust and support and confidence,” said Dan Cronin, Republican chairman in DuPage County, vital GOP territory.
But the revelations undermine Kirk’s credibility, which was supposed to be a major asset.
Kirk has largely disappeared from public view since apologizing for misstating his military credentials. He did give a speech Monday but wound up fleeing from reporters afterward when they wanted to ask questions about the issue.
Meanwhile, Giannoulias is sharing the spotlight at fundraisers with Vice President Joe Biden, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and others with ties to Obama. White House officials now see Kirk’s troubles as an opportunity for the Democratic nominee, and have moved to try to capitalize on the GOP nominee’s woes. They’ve dispatched White House Deputy Chief of Staff Jim Messina to the state, and other top Obama officials also are expected to appear before November.
Giannoulias also has rolled out policy announcements on energy and infrastructure, bolstering his argument that he’s focused on issues while Kirk scrambles.
Giannoulias spokeswoman Kathleen Strand said the fundraising events were being planned before Kirk’s latest problems surfaced. But the situation has helped the Democratic campaign.
If nothing else, it feeds into the Democrat’s strategy of portraying Kirk as a calculating Washington insider — “a typical politician who will do and say anything,” as Strand put it.
The seat figures prominently in Blagojevich’s arrest and impeachment. Blagojevich, now on trial and insisting on his innocence, was accused of scheming to trade an appointment to the vacant seat for political contributions, a job or some other personal benefit.
Kirk’s problems began with the revelation that his frequent references to being named the Navy’s intelligence officer of the year were false. Instead, a slightly different award had gone to the intelligence unit that Kirk led, not to Kirk personally.
That was followed by a long string of other errors and exaggerations.
A letter from his office said he served in the first Gulf War when he didn’t. He has also referred to serving in the invasion of Iraq, although his duties kept him stateside. He said his Reserve work sometimes includes running the Pentagon war room, even though he oversees only the intelligence operations.
Although he had clearly described coming under fire while flying missions over Kosovo and Iraq, Kirk began to hedge and say the he couldn’t be sure his plane was targeted by the anti-aircraft fire. And he didn’t mention that he rode along on only a handful of flights — perhaps just three.
Kirk’s campaign also denied he had ever improperly mingled political activity with his military duties, only to have the Pentagon confirm that he had done exactly that on two occasions.
The New York Times also found that Kirk taught middle school in England but only for one school year. And his stint at a nursery school apparently was as an aide, not a full-fledged teacher.
Campaign manager Eric Elk said Kirk has dealt with the military issue by apologizing and correcting the record. Elk said Kirk’s mistakes don’t compare to Giannoulias’ “damning record of losing other people’s money” as a treasurer and banker.
Elk would say little about how Kirk will reassure any voters who now question his judgment and honesty. “In the end, the election is about the economy and putting people back to work,” Elk said.
Cronin, the DuPage County GOP chairman, said he was confident Kirk would get back on track. He noted it wasn’t long ago that people were wondering whether Giannoulias would have to drop out of the race.
“The race looked like it was over,” Cronin said. “But there’s always something.”