Could Obama's old seat go to a Republican?

Democrats take nothing for granted after moderate wins Illinois primary

David Usborne,Us Editor
Thursday 04 February 2010 01:01

Newly emboldened Republicans are daring to hope that a moderate member of the US Congress from Illinois has a serious chance of taking an open US Senate seat in mid-term elections this November after he scored a decisive victory in a hard-fought primary contest on Tuesday.

The victory of Mark Kirk, a mostly moderate Republican congressman, who easily outran his more conservative rivals in the primary race, means that Illinois will become one of the hot-points of the mid-term elections in November. He is competing for the Senate seat that was once held by President Barack Obama.

He will go up against Alexi Giannoulias, the 33-year-old state Treasurer, who had a far more difficult time warding off rivals to win the Democrat primary race on Tuesday. Mr Giannoulias used to play basketball with Mr Obama and will need all the help he can get from his old friend if he is going to ward off Mr Kirk.

That the usually reliably blue Illinois – the Republicans hold no state-wide offices and are in the minority in the state legislature – is even in play in the mid-terms would have been unthinkable until two weeks ago, when Senator Scott Brown took Ted Kennedy's old seat in Massachusetts, another state that was meant to be solidly Democrat.

As party officials pored over the Illinois results, President Obama met Democrat members of the US Senate to stiffen their spines after the shock of Massachusetts. "We still have to lead... the American people are out of patience with business as usual," he argued before taking questions. Saying that passing healthcare reform remained a top priority, he urged them not to "tread lightly, keep your head down and play it safe".

Mr Giannoulias faces several challenges to hold on to the Illinois seat for the Democrats. The state has a crippling budget deficit and at 10.8 per cent an unemployment rate that is higher than the national average. The state pension fund is $80bn underfunded, and, according to a recent survey, Illinois is second only to the disaster zone of Michigan for the disproportion between people moving out and those moving in.

The seat, moreover, is currently held by Roland Burris, who was appointed to it by the disgraced former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich, and saw his own popularity plunge to a point where trying to keep it himself became politically untenable.

"Tonight we begin a journey to right our ship of state," Mr Kirk, 50, told supporters in Chicago. Wasting no time to evoke what Senator Brown had pulled off last month in Massachusetts, he added: "We believe that one political party cannot hold all the answers and we believe that one political party should never control all the power."

To stop the Kirk steamroller, the Democrats will have to use the full weight of their influence in Illinois, including the traditional backing of the unions. However, for many voters, notably independents, it is the slightly bad smell of the Democrat political "machine" in the state that may send them running towards the Republican.

"We know that in this environment, Democrats cannot take anything for granted, and that is why Alexi's campaign is already working hard to frame the race," said the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee chairman, Bob Menendez, a senator from New Jersey.

Primary mover: The Republican hope

A five-term congressman who represents an Illinois district in the suburbs north of Chicago, Mark Kirk has a reputation as an independent thinker and is considered a moderate on social issues, for example advocating stem cell research and leading efforts for the protection of the Great Lakes. But he is a hawk on security and foreign policy, positions which cohere with his former service as an intelligence officer in the Naval Reserve, during which he served in Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti. He is one of only two members of Congress who serves as a reservist one weekend a month and two weeks per year. Holder of a Master's degree from the London School of Economics, he is fiscally conservative. He has shown himself to be among the most impressive fundraisers in the country, harvesting $1.8m in the past three months alone.

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