Sen. Mark S. Kirk, R-Ill., has a message for anyone who doubts his will or appetite for a second term.
"No frickin' way am I retiring," he told CQ Roll Call in an exclusive interview Thursday from his Capitol Hill office, following some speculation in local press over the senator's future and his shifting political operation. "With all this rehab, for me just to walk was a huge effort. I had to re-learn how to walk again after the stroke. And all the rehab and all the effort shows the mental determination times 10 to keep serving."
In an extended interview, Kirk sought to dispel any notion he's ready to leave the Senate — or that he lacks the stamina to seek re-election after suffering an ischemic stroke in January 2012 . Kirk said he feels great, and any opponents who question his fitness to serve will regret it.
"That would not be taken well by the people of Illinois, who would not like that kind of attack," Kirk said. "That would be an advantage to me if they did that."
The Republican will be a top target for Democrats in 2016, as the party aims to reclaim the majority it lost in a sweeping GOP wave last week. Democrats view Kirk's seat in Illinois — a state where Democrats dominate in presidential elections — as a top pickup opportunity .
Most recently, several of Kirk's current and former top staffers have headed to Gov.-elect Bruce Rauner's administration. The senator's longtime chief of staff, Eric Elk, is leaving his office to enter the private sector, though Kirk said Elk will still be heavily involved in the campaign.
Kirk said any doubts about his re-election come from Democrats, who fear his moderate brand and popularity in the Chicagoland suburbs make him an insurmountable foe.
"It’s the only way that Democrats can win in Illinois, is to say, 'Oh, Kirk has health problems, he’s going to retire,'" he said said. "For Democrats looking at a minority life and seeing that they cannot win in Illinois is so frustrating that they will just assume away any issue. They’ll just say to willing reporters, 'I think Kirk is going to retire.'"
The senator said he hasn't yet put together a team for his re-election bid. He says Elk will be involved, but much of the rest is still to be determined. He noted he's raised $2 million and counting.
During his campaign, Kirk plans to tout a moderate record — including his support for same-sex marriage, abortion rights and protecting Lake Michigan — as selling points to Democratic-leaning constituents.
"There’s a new role that I see for myself with the new Republican majority running the Senate. I am now the premiere ambassador for the state from the Republican majority," Kirk said.
Although no Democrats have entered the race, Kirk said he is unafraid to take on any top potential challengers.
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a veteran and double amputee, is reportedly interested . But Duckworth is pregnant and currently unable to travel, raising questions as to whether she will want to spend the next two years campaigning — or may just wait until the state's senior senator, Democrat Richard J. Durbin, retires.
Other possible candidates include Illinois Reps. Cheri Bustos and Bill Foster, as well as Attorney General Lisa Madigan.
Kirk said he hasn't spoken with any of the possible candidates — or Durbin — about running in 2016. He initially declined to campaign for Durbin's 2014 GOP opponent, dairy magnate Jim Oberweis, citing his valuable relationship with his fellow senator, though he later attended events for the GOP candidate.
He said he hopes Durbin will take the same, non-aggressive approach to his own re-election effort.
"The analogy I gave to everybody back home is, think of a wagon being pulled by two horses," Kirk said. "The wagon’s called Illinois. The two horses, one horse is named Durbin, the other horse is named Kirk. If the two horses try nipping at each other, than the wagon’s not going to go very fast."
Kirk briefly acknowledged the possibility of a primary challenge, mentioning former Rep. Joe Walsh, the tea party conservative whom Duckworth ousted in 2012 and who is rumored to be a possible challenger.
"In my case, all my races ... Congress and Senate, have been tough," said Kirk, who served five terms in a suburban Chicago House district before ascending to the Senate in 2010. "You’ve gotta go past the right and the left. And in Illinois, the left being the more dangerous party in the general election."
Kirk said he is worried about a potential barrage of super PAC spending in the race.
"The one thing that all of us in public life in the post [super PAC]-era all fear is hundreds of millions of dollars from some unknown group rolling in, blanketing the airwaves saying you strangle kittens," said Kirk, who joked, "I'm very pro-cat," referring to his 2-year-old black cat, Cleopatra, whom he got after his stroke.
He cautioned those groups not to question his health in the campaign.
"The other day, one of our CBS 2 reporters said, 'Hey Kirk, every day I see you out there you have a calendar like a candidate,'" Kirk said. "I said, 'That’s cause I is one.'"
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