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Illinois governor's race too close to call

By Lois Romano
Wednesday, February 3, 2010; 10:00 AM

Illinois primary voters awoke this morning to electoral confusion in President Obama's home state, facing Democratic and Republican gubernatorial races still too close to call.

On the Democratic side, Gov. Pat Quinn declared himself a winner over Comptroller Dan Hynes, but Hynes, who reportedly trailed by fewer than 6,000 votes in the ferociously fought contest, would not concede defeat. There was no more security on the GOP side, as state Sens. Bill Brady of Bloomington and Kirk Dillard of Hinsdale were locked in a tight fight with 99 percent of the unofficial vote counted. Each had 20 percent of the vote as they headed to a Republican unity breakfast.

Illinois voters made decisive choices, however, in the showdown for the Senate seat previously held by Obama, nominating U.S. Rep. Mark Steven 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 might have signaled fractures in the state Democratic Party heading into the general election.

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.

Democrats control the Illinois legislature as well as every elected state post. But Republicans have had a great track record winning gubernatorial elections; in 2002, Rod Blagojevich became the first Democrat in 30 years to be elected governor -- a result that didn't turn out so well for him or the party.

Blagojevich was indicted and impeached for allegedly trying to sell Obama's Senate seat, putting Quinn in the governor's mansion only a year ago. Republicans were hoping to capitalize on the scandal, as well as voters' unease about the economy.

The Democratic gubernatorial race was intense and ugly and is likely to go down as one of the nastiest primaries in the state's history. Quinn was up 26 percentage points in December, when Hynes assailed his administration over a state program that allowed for the early release of 1,700 inmates from state prisons as a cost-cutting measure last year. Some inmates had served only a few weeks of their sentences, and about 50 committed crimes while they were on the streets. But the race may have come down to a Hynes ad 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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