Democrats: 'Symbol of President's plight' as Obama's former Senate seat lost

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In the sparkling ballroom of the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago, the mood was buoyant. Alexi Giannoulias, a son of Greek immigrants and the Illinois state treasurer, seemed to be prevailing over the Republican Congressman Mark Kirk to take the US Senate seat that once belonged to President Barack Obama.

But Greeks should know tragedy when it is coming. The chorus beyond the walls of Fortress Fairmont sung its unremitting song: The Democrats are being slaughtered, do not imagine that the Senate seat with Mr Obama's name on it will be spared; it will be lost and become a symbol of the President's plight.

In other states, Democrats might also initially have been lulled. Ted Strickland, the incumbent Governor of Ohio, and Joe Sestak, the Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, looked just about all right during early returns. But those first precincts did not reflect what was coming. They were also about to drown.

Though few in the ballroom were aware of it, the end for Mr Giannoulias came at 9.46pm. That was when the interactive maps on the network websites showed Mr Kirk overtaking him for the first time in the vote count. It took a while for the local Fox affiliate to catch up – it was their show being shown on the jumbo television screens for the crowd to follow. Eventually, the channel tagged the race a "squeaker".

But it was not, really. Mr Giannoulias, who had been pummelled in the campaign by allegations of shifty dealings at his family bank, went down to Mr Kirk by more than two points. It was a similar picture in races for the US House of Representatives across Illinois. The incumbent Governor Pat Quinn looked yesterday as if he may have won by just a handful of votes. And this was happening in Illinois, which is meant to be Democrat country.

No sweep is ever complete and there were a few results that gave Democrats cause to smile, if nervously. Andrew Cuomo roared past his accident-prone Tea Party foe to become the Governor of New York, stepping into the shoes once famously worn by his father Mario Cuomo. Mario was perennially talked of as a possible President. Let the whispers about his son and the White House begin.

And the blood-letting was less dramatic west of the Rockies. Harry Reid, the indefatigable one, squashed another Tea Party mosquito, Sharron Angle. Barbara Boxer held on to her Senate seat in California, which gave the keys to its Governor's mansion to Jerry Brown, who has lived there twice before. In Washington State, Democrat Patty Murray may have survived a Republican grab for her Senate seat, likewise Michael Bennett in Colorado. Those races remained too close to call last night.

Mr Giannoulias waited until after 11pm to come out of his room upstairs and deliver the dreadful news personally to his supporters in the ballroom. Emerging from the lifts, he kissed some hands and walked straight to the podium. He did not have a prepared speech, because he had not expected to lose. "Proud of you," a woman with a thick Greek accent called out repeatedly and Mr Giannoulias, his eyes brimming, said Illinois should embrace the victor of the evening, Mr Kirk.

Mr Giannoulias, 34, came to the race as a Washington outsider. But Republicans were quick to focus the attention of voters on the bank where he had previously worked; it was founded by his father and made huge loans to crime figures in Chicago. Mr Giannoulias had also enthusiastically accepted the embrace of Mr Obama during the race. That may have been a mistake.

Conversations with voters outside polling stations on Tuesday suggested that Democrats were either voting for Mr Giannoulias while holding their noses or not ticking his box at all.

"I couldn't vote for him because the guy is just scummy," said Peter Jacobs, an estate agent who otherwise describes himself as "a diehard" Democrat. "The stuff that happened at his family bank, you know, I can't vote for a candidate like that."