Illinois GOP leaders rally around Kirk: 'He's our guy'

Top state Republicans said they are behind U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk's re-election bid today as the first-term official skipped the GOP day at the Illinois State Fair.

Kirk has faced heat in recent months for comments he's had to walk back, and today he was attending briefings in Chicago about the Iran deal, his campaign manager said.

The annual state fair gathering is one of the party's biggest rallies of the year, where candidates can connect with Republican officials from across the state, try to get momentum going toward the next year's elections and talk to reporters. Kirk has been a critic of President Barack Obama's administration's deal with Iran.

"The opportunity came up for this briefing from the terror funding expert, and we wanted to seize it," Kirk campaign manager Kevin Artl said.

Illinois Republican Party Chairman Tim Schneider of Bartlett said the party is behind Kirk.

"He's our guy," Schneider said at the party's breakfast before the fair.

Gov. Bruce Rauner said he's backing Kirk, too.

"I just learned that he's not here today," Rauner said. "I don't really know why."

Kirk's campaign just Monday sent out an email urging supporters to "join Senator Mark Kirk and fellow Republican leaders at the Illinois State Fair."

U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren, a Plano Republican, said the party needs to already be thinking about November 2016, when the presidential race and Kirk's re-election bid are set to be at the top of the ballot.

Kirk faces a Democratic field that includes U.S. Rep. Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates and former Chicago Urban League CEO Andrea Zopp.

Kirk, a first-term senator and former congressman, has taken heat in recent weeks for a series of comments that prompted top GOP donor Ron Gidwitz to briefly suggest Kirk should abandon his bid. Gidwitz later withdrew the statement and Republicans, including Rauner, quickly rallied around Kirk.

"Hopefully, we can pull together and always remind ourselves who the true opponent is. It's not ourselves," Hultgren said.

Last year's fair provided an early glimpse into what a Kirk and Duckworth matchup might look like.

In a keynote speech, Duckworth criticized companies who sought to move out of the country for tax purposes as "deserters."

Kirk responded the next day, saying Duckworth shouldn't use such a serious military term lightly.

Rauner got a standing ovation at the breakfast when he called today "a great day" because it is the first in 12 years that Republicans get to celebrate Governor's Day at the state fair.

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  Gov. Bruce Rauner talks to reporters at the Illinois State Fair. Mike Riopell/
  Gov. Bruce Rauner arrives to the Illinois State Fair with protesters in the background. Mike Riopell/
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