SPRINGFIELD – Seven months after returning to Congress following a debilitating stroke, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk encouraged fellow Illinois Republicans Thursday to look to his example and "never give up" the quest to rebuild their party and recapture the governor's mansion despite public embarrassments and setbacks.
"I will not ever give up on Illinois," Kirk said, puncturing the air with his right index finger during a brief speech at Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair.
It is clear that both Kirk and the state's minority party have a difficult road ahead of them. Kirk is tasked with continued rehabilitation efforts as he makes his own re-election bid in 2016, and the Illinois GOP with projecting unity and offering an attractive alternative to Democrats at a time when the state is in dire financial straits.
State Treasurer Dan Rutherford, venture capitalist Bruce Rauner, State Sen. Kirk Dillard, state Sen. Bill Brady are all making bids. Thursday was the first time that all four gubernatorial primary candidates shared a stage since announcing their bids earlier this summer. It is Brady's third try for governor and Dillard's second.
Rutherford boasted that he was the only Republican in the field to have won a statewide race.
"I've eaten your ham bone, your fried fish, your chicken," he said of attending local Republican events throughout Illinois. "I pledge to keep that up and help you."
Dillard, a former chief of staff for Republican governor Jim Edgar, touted his "experience that money can't buy" and told the crowd that as governor, the state would not be dominated by Chicago city hall. Edgar, he quipped, was the last "clean and competent" governor the state had.
Rauner, the only candidate who has never held elected office arrived at the fair on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle and pledged to bring business success to the governorship of Illinois.
"I will not watch this state go down the drain," he said.
Brady donned sneakers after hearing Quinn's Wednesday remarks that he was left "looking for his running shoes" in the 2010 general election, when he lost by less than a percentage point of 3.6 million votes. He told crowds it was "time to finish the job we started four years ago."
The party is coming off major losses in 2012 as well as a recent gay marriage flap that eventually prompted the resignation of former Illinois GOP Chairman Pat Brady. Some officials openly acknowledge that the organization is out of touch with voters.
Republican Day at the Illinois State Fair, the formal kickoff of the 2014 campaign, also marked Kirk's official re-entry into the political arena. Republicans' uniting over fiscally conservative values, he said, will help protect Illinois from the fate that befell Detroit. "The Republican way is the way to protect the people of Illinois."
Kirk suffered partial paralysis to his left arm and leg as a result of the January 2012 stroke. He took the stage Thursday afternoon with the help of his four-pronged cane, as attendees waived red "never give up" signs and cheered.
State treasurer candidate Bob Grogan chastised Republicans at a morning state central committee meeting for becoming the party voters associate with "Joe cognac."
"We've lost the connection with Joe six-pack," he said.
New Illinois GOP Chair Jack Dorgan said the state party has, in recent months, begun carrying out a new strategy plan he developed, upping fundraising and providing early support for campaigns throughout the state.
The often public squabbling between conservative and moderate factions of the state central committee over party leadership, he said, has ceased.
"This is not a game about individuals. It's a state party. It's about winning elections," Dorgan said.
Yet, history threatens to repeat itself in the crowded 2014 Republican gubernatorial primary, which in 2010 fractured party support and resources, helped hand a narrow general election victory to Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn's over state Sen. Bill Brady.
Dorgan acknowledged that he'd "like to put them (the gubernatorial candidates) all in a blender. That's a recipe for success."
Kirk, who is declining to make an endorsement in the governor's race, told the Associated Press that he would be encouraging party members to "adhere to the eleventh commandment of Ronald Reagan."
"Thou shalt," Kirk said, "not speak ill of a fellow Republican."