Politics & Policy

Can Mark Kirk Bounce Back?

After an embarrassing gaffe, the Illinois Republican needs to adjust his campaign strategy.

Rep. Mark Kirk, a vanilla-moderate Republican from Chicago’s North Shore, represents one of the GOP’s best shots at picking up a blue-state Senate seat. Last week, however, his squeaky-clean image suffered a blow, when it was revealed that Kirk had taken sole credit for an award given to his former Navy intelligence unit. “I simply misremembered it wrong,” he told the Chicago Sun-Times. “I want to be very contrite and say there is a casualness with which I sometimes describe military details. And if it gave the impression that my military record is larger than it was, I want to apologize.”

While Kirk’s résumé embellishment is unseemly, his timing is worse. The news arrived on the heels of revelations that Richard Blumenthal, the Democratic Senate candidate in Connecticut, had lied about his Vietnam record. As Kirk was apologizing for his “misremembered” memories, many Republican leaders were still chastising Blumenthal. Days before, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R., Utah) had gone so far as to propose a bill that would criminalize false statements about military service.

Unbelievably, Kirk has ceded at least part of the moral high ground to a man he calls a “mob banker.” His Democratic opponent, Illinois state treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, has been on the ropes for weeks after his family bank, which made loans to convicted felons, was seized by federal regulators. The latest Rasmussen poll shows Kirk holding an eight-point lead.

Yet Giannoulias, whom the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC) says would make “Tony Soprano proud,” now finds himself wagging the finger. “Mark has had better weeks than the last,” Rep. Peter Roskam, a friend and fellow Illinois Republican, tells NRO. “The good thing is that it’s June, not October, and by then, when the race crystallizes, this military drama will be over. Pick your seafaring analogy: His ship will right itself.”

The national GOP is doing its best to swat away the story. While Kirk declines interviews — he would not speak with NRO for this article — others are stepping up. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the NRSC chairman, went to bat for Kirk on Sunday, telling ABC’s Jake Tapper that Kirk “made clear that his company, or his organization, got that medal and not him personally, and he apologized for any misunderstanding.” Blumenthal’s transgression, Cornyn added, is worse, since the Connecticut Democrat claims simply to have “misspoke” about his Vietnam service. “That’s like shooting yourself in one foot and reloading and shooting yourself in the other,” Cornyn said.

Unfortunately for Kirk, the Associated Press has uncovered other dubious or false assertions he has made about his naval exploits. “Kirk’s overstatements include claiming he was a veteran of Operation Desert Storm when he didn’t participate,” the AP reports. “He also says he doesn’t recall coming under enemy fire when he flew on reconnaissance missions over Iraq, although a C-SPAN video shows Kirk on the House floor saying the ‘Iraqi air defense network was shooting at us.’”

In Connecticut, Blumenthal has been able to able to recover from his flubs. Kirk could, too, though don’t expect the Obama-Daley-Durbin machine to let the story go anytime soon. The harder part for Kirk may be finding a fresh focus for his campaign. After months of hammering Giannoulias on character issues and talking up his own military experience, Kirk now must shift strategies. Here’s one idea: less Mafia talk, less emphasis on the Navy, and more ideas for creating jobs.

In February, Republicans nominated Kirk over a tea-party darling, for understandable reasons. They wanted a popular GOP veteran — albeit one who voted for cap-and-trade legislation last June — to give them their best chance of winning a close race. During the primary campaign, Kirk seemed like just the kind of mild-mannered candidate who would avoid embarrassment and Blago-Burris-type shenanigans. While he has avoided the latter just fine, Kirk is struggling with the former. He’s finding out that dishonesty, even in small doses, doesn’t play in Peoria — or Chicago.

“Democrats have done an excellent job of keeping the Kirk controversy alive,” Jennifer Duffy, a Senate analyst at the Cook Political Report, tells NRO. “Kirk’s embellishments about his military record weaken him as a candidate and are inexplicable given that his record is pretty admirable without them. In a race against just about any other candidate, Kirk would have a major problem. But, here’s the real question for the race: Now that both candidates have some baggage, whose is heavier — Kirk’s or Giannoulias’s?”

Kirk can take solace in the fact that he’s not the one whose bank is under federal scrutiny. This is a point, however, that he should let others make for him.

– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.

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