Democrats lose Obama's former Senate seat
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 2:19 AM
CHICAGO -- Voters in President Barack Obama's home state rejected his friend and his policies Tuesday, giving his old Senate seat to a Republican.
Mark Kirk, a congressman and Obama critic, narrowly defeated Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a basketball buddy of the president who would have been a strong ally in Washington.
"A tsunami just hit the heartland," Kirk exulted in his victory speech.
Obama and his White House team campaigned hard for Giannoulias, hoping to avoid perhaps the most politically embarrassing loss on a night of losses for Democrats.
But with 99 percent of the vote counted, Kirk had 48 percent to Giannoulias' 46 percent - squeaking out a victory despite the revelation that he had made false claims about his military record.
Kirk urged Obama to work with him "to move the country back to right of center" now that the voters have sent a message on taxing and spending.
Republicans immediately seized on Kirk's victory as a referendum on Obama.
"When President Obama's home state rejects the past 18 months of his presidency and elects Mark Kirk, a fiscal conservative, to his old Senate seat, it should send shock waves through the White House," said Michael Steele, chairman of the Republican National Committee.
The Senate campaign was a bitter exchange of charges and countercharges.
Giannoulias faced attacks over his family's failed bank, which gave loans to two men involved in organized crime. Meanwhile, Kirk was forced to apologize after the disclosure that he had exaggerated his military accomplishments.
In his concession speech, Giannoulias said Kirk had promised he would never forget who he's fighting for in Washington.
"I think he will make a good senator. I think he will make a strong senator," Giannoulias said. "He will help a lot of people."
Exit polling found that more than a third of Illinois voters considered neither Kirk nor Giannoulias to be honest and trustworthy.
Trust may have been especially important in the race because of its links to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The Democratic governor was removed from office in disgrace after federal prosecutors alleged he tried to sell the appointment as Obama's temporary Senate replacement.
But before leaving office, Blagojevich appointed former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris, who was widely criticized for accepting the post and decided not to seek a full term.
Kirk not only won a term beginning in January. He also was selected to replace Burris and serve the final weeks of the term that began six years ago with Obama's election. Kirk could take office within days, and he promises to block any Democratic efforts to pass costly proposals in a lame-duck session.
Giannoulias played professional basketball in Greece and became a friend and basketball partner of Obama's. Encouraged by the future president, he ran for Illinois treasurer and won on the strength of his experience as an executive at his family's Broadway Bank.
Four years later, he set his sights on winning Obama's former Senate seat. But his banking experience worked against him when the bank failed and was taken over by federal regulators. Giannoulias also had to explain - again and again - his role in the bank's loans to two people with ties to organized crime and to corrupt political insider Antoin "Tony" Rezko.
He faced Kirk, who looked like the clear favorite with his mix of moderate social views and military experience. Then came the revelation that after long saying he was the Navy's "intelligence officer of the year," Kirk never actually won that award.
It turned out that at various times Kirk, a commander in the Navy Reserve, also had falsely said he served in the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, claimed to run the Pentagon war room and said he came under enemy fire on flights over Kosovo and Iraq.
Winnetka voter Barbara Mitchel, 53, said she supports Obama but voted for Kirk.
"My vote for Republicans sends a message to Obama: You're doing a good job, but you've got to do better," she said.
Associated Press writers Carla K. Johnson and Michael Tarm contributed to this report.