Ditka disputes Senate candidate’s campaign endorsement claim

Update 4:07 p.m.: In response to The Hill’s story, Hughes and Ditka have released the following statement:

“As of Oct. 22, Mike Ditka is endorsing Patrick Hughes for U.S. Senate. This statement is being issued jointly by Mike Ditka’s organization and the U.S. Senate campaign of Patrick Hughes. We have no further comment on anything that has been discussed or reported in any media.

“Due to Coach Ditka’s numerous business and personal commitments, he will not be serving on Patrick Hughes’ finance committee.”

Former Chicago Bears Coach Mike Ditka and a Senate candidate in Illinois are doing battle over whether the Hall of Famer actually endorsed the candidate earlier this month.

Rep. Mark KirkMark Steven KirkHigh stakes as Trump heads to Hill Five things to watch for at Trump-Senate GOP meeting Giffords, Scalise highlight party differences on guns MORE's (R-Ill.) top primary opponent, developer Pat Hughes, three weeks ago claimed Ditka’s endorsement at his Chicago restaurant as a launching pad for his campaign. He said more recently that Ditka had agreed to serve on his finance committee.

But now Ditka says he never officially endorsed Hughes and didn’t agree to serve in any capacity on his campaign.

“Pat spoke at the restaurant (two weeks ago) and presented small-government and Reaganomic points of view,” Ditka said in a statement. “He asked if I would endorse his candidacy, and I indicated I supported his views. We were never given the opportunity to agree to a press release which claimed I ‘officially endorsed his candidacy.’ "

Ditka added that he “certainly did not agree to serve on his finance committee.”

But Hughes stands by his assertions and suggested Thursday that Ditka is yielding to pressure over the endorsement.

Hughes said he and the coach had lengthy discussions before he spoke at the restaurant, and that Ditka definitely agreed to serve on Hughes’s finance committee.

Another candidate in the race has suggested Ditka might open himself to boycotts by supporting Hughes, and Hughes said that threat has “flustered” Ditka’s people, who have handled the situation poorly.

“I would be speculating as to what their intentions are, but clearly they’re succumbing to some pressure,” Hughes said in an interview. “Any statement made that the coach did not officially or actually endorse me, I believe, is not true. I was endorsed, and that’s why I said I was.”

Ditka’s statement, which was forwarded to The Hill on Thursday, is dated Oct. 15 but has not made its way into the mainstream media. Ditka does not appear to have sought corrections when a number of news outlets, including The Hill, picked up on Hughes’s press release announcing the endorsement.

Hughes acknowledged that he did not check with Ditka’s associates before claiming his endorsement in the press release. But he said Ditka gave him clear authority to go public with it.

He said both his attorney and Ditka’s wife were present when Ditka agreed to serve on his finance committee.

“That was prior to the event. I sat down with Coach Ditka for what I think was 45 minutes prior to the event,” Hughes said.

Ken Valdiserri, who serves as president of Ditka’s Gridiron Greats Assistance Fund charity, said the endorsement could have been forgiven as a mixup, but that the finance committee situation is another matter.

“He never agreed to do it,” Valdiserri said. “Mike doesn’t have time to be on a finance committee of any politician. He doesn’t have time to be speaking and helping candidates when he’s in the middle of his busiest season,” which includes serving as an NFL analyst on ESPN.

Hughes, a political newcomer, mostly self-funded a $380,000 haul in the third quarter and has released a poll showing Kirk leading him 24-11. While Kirk is a strong favorite, Hughes’s profile and ability to self-fund have gained the attention of some conservative leaders looking for an alternative.