Kirk, Giannoulias win Illinois' Senate primaries for Obama's old seat

Voters fill out their primary-election ballots in the garage of Dave Matthew's residence in Springfield, Ill.
Voters fill out their primary-election ballots in the garage of Dave Matthew's residence in Springfield, Ill. (Seth Perlman/associated Press)
By Lois Romano
Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Illinois voters on Tuesday set up a November battle for the Senate seat previously held by President Obama, nominating Rep. Mark Kirk (R) and state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias (D) in the nation's first primary election of 2010.

Kirk, a five-term congressman with a moderate record, cruised to victory over five rivals. Giannoulias -- at age 31 a relative political novice -- edged out former Chicago inspector general David Hoffman in a result that may have signaled fractures in the state Democratic Party heading into the general election.

Illinois also cast ballots for governor, but both parties' results remained too close to call early Wednesday, even with 97 percent of precincts reporting.

Gov. Pat Quinn (D) was fighting for his political life, trying to stave off an aggressive effort to unseat him by state Comptroller Dan Hynes at a time when voters' populist anger is turning against officeholders. Quinn led Hynes by about 5,200 votes (out of more than 850,000 cast).

And in a wide-open Republican primary, state Sen. Bill Brady led state Sen. Kirk Dillard by about 2,000 votes, each getting about 20 percent of the vote in a seven-candidate field.

Turnout appeared to be very low throughout the state, hampered by snow and sleet.

The stakes of Tuesday's election were significant, both symbolically -- Democrats badly want to hang on to both seats in the president's home state -- and politically -- Republicans are hungry to record gains in what has always been considered a very blue state.

The primary took place amid a national electoral backdrop that seemed to favor the GOP, which was coming off recent victories in a Senate special election in Massachusetts and governor's races in New Jersey and Virginia.

Kirk is seeking to become the first Republican in more than a decade to win a Senate seat in Illinois, and his positions are expected to play well statewide: He is a fiscal conservative who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and who supports abortion rights. He has also proved to be a tough campaigner, beating back strong Democratic efforts to unseat him in the past two election cycles. Even with Obama on the ballot in 2008 and pulling 61 percent in Kirk's district, Kirk easily won reelection.

Democrats complained that Kirk veered to the right in the primary -- he solicited support from former Alaska governor Sarah Palin and switched his position on an energy bill after conservative activists protested at his office. Kirk said in an interview that he shifted his position after he traveled the state and heard from businesses that the measure would "hammer them and cost jobs."

"Tonight, we begin a journey together to right our ship of state and reclaim our place as the honest Land of Lincoln -- the center of North America's economy and crossroads of the nation," Kirk said Tuesday night in his victory speech.

Giannoulias, meanwhile, has been something of a political wunderkind, and he drew significant support for the Democratic Party's establishment -- a development that especially helped him downstate on Tuesday. But he enters the general-election campaign with some baggage from his former career in the family's troubled banking business, an issue that Republicans have already seized upon.

"Tonight the voters of Illinois sent a message loud and clear. In the midst of this dreadful economic crisis, they wanted a senator who will limit Washington special interests and protect the jobs of everyday Illinois families," Giannoulias said Tuesday nightgovernors' raceswith will surely showing the late mayor Harold Washington talking about why he fired Quinn from his post as revenue director. In the 24-year-old interview, Washington called Quinn an "undisciplined individual" and said his greatest mistake in government was hiring Quinn.

Staff writer Chris Cillizza contributed to this report.

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