CHICAGO — Republican Mark Kirk captured President Barack Obama's old U.S. Senate seat Tuesday, embarrassing the president in his home state by defeating Obama's political disciple, Democrat Alexi Giannoulias.
As the night wore on, Kirk took control of what had been a tight race for what were actually two parallel elections — one for a new six year term and the other for slightly more than a month, the result of a court order to fill the remainder of Obama's former term.
That means Kirk will likely be able to cast a critical tax-cut vote in the upcoming lame-duck session of Congress.
The finish was a fitting end to what had been a neck-and-neck campaign fueled by millions of dollars in spending by outside groups. During the campaign, Kirk's embellishments about his military career and Giannoulias' controversies over his family bank and a troubled college savings program provided rich fodder for a barrage of attack ads leveled by both candidates as well as third-party special-interest groups.
With neither side able to claim a clear victory by late in the night, both candidates remained holed up in hotel rooms away from large gatherings of supporters — Giannoulias in Chicago and Kirk in north suburban Wheeling.
Shortly after polls closed at 7 p.m., Giannoulias appeared to jump to a big lead because results from his stronghold in the Chicago area came in first. But the gap gradually narrowed as the night wore on and more votes poured in from Republican areas in the collar counties and downstate.
When Kirk took the lead at 10 p.m. the initially buoyant mood at Giannoulias headquarters quickly went flat and supporters shook their heads.
As Kirk's lead widened, Giannoulais spokeswoman Kathleen Strand issued a statement saying "it's too early to tell — we're still waiting for some key precincts to report."
Kirk, a veteran North Shore congressman, and Giannoulias, the one-term state treasurer, have been locked in a tight battle for months that has attracted considerable national attention because of the Obama legacy. Republicans sought to embarrass the president by turning his old Senate seat into a GOP trophy.
Green Party candidate LeAlan Jones and Libertarian Mike Labno collectively gathered less than 6 percent of the vote but their results had the potential to affect the outcome. Also uncertain was the number of unaccounted for absentee ballots, which may be tallied late and delay a final determination of a winner.
Technically, the winner replaces Roland Burris, appointed under a cloud nearly two years ago by then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich following Blagojevich's arrest on charges he had been trying to sell the Senate seat for his personal benefit.
As candidates, Kirk and Giannoulias couldn't have been more dissimilar — the veteran Republican policy wonk with a proclivity for exaggeration versus the athletic young liberal with a short political resume and ties to a troubled family bank. Their general election race swiftly descended into a below-the-belt affair that focused on their many flaws more than ideas.
In this year of the anti-establishment candidate, Kirk paradoxically stressed his long experience in and around the corridors of power on Capitol Hill. At 51, the Highland Park Republican has served five-terms in the U.S. House and before that worked as a government bureaucrat — largely as a legislative aide — for most of his adult life.
It was the 34-year-old Giannoulias, with no Washington experience, who was better positioned to claim outsider status. Yet, he aligned himself closely with the policies of Obama, a mentor of sorts since the two met by chance playing pickup basketball at the University of Chicago in the 1990s.
Despite Obama's personal ties to Giannoulias, the treasurer wasn't the president's first choice to seek the Democratic Senate nomination. White House officials actively sought to recruit Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan to run, calculating she would be more formidable in a general election contest.
But Madigan declined, and Giannoulias pressed ahead, beating former City Hall inspector general David Hoffman and other challengers in the February primary. Kirk bested a primary field of minor candidates to secure the Republican nomination.
After the primary, Republicans quickly homed in on questions about the conduct of Giannoulias as treasurer and before that as a senior loan officer at Broadway Bank. While Giannoulias worked at the bank, launched by his Greek immigrant father more than three decades ago, the institution extended millions of dollars in loans to Chicago crime figures.
Giannoulias also was put on the defensive when federal regulators in April seized Broadway amid the collapse in the commercial real estate market. Giannoulias used his financial experience at the once high-flying community bank as a springboard for his 2006 campaign for treasurer.
Another vulnerability exploited by critics was his stewardship of the showcase Bright Start college investment program, which generally was praised by financial analysts. That said, Giannoulias also was hit by charges that he was too slow to act when one of the component funds of Bright Start suffered badly in the housing market freefall of 2008, ultimately losing tens of millions of dollars for Illinois parents.
Over his 10 years in the House, Kirk crafted a reputation as part of a vanishing breed of Republicans — a centrist unafraid to buck his own party line on issues like abortion rights, gun control and climate change. But in the Senate campaign, he veered to the right on some of those pivotal issues, making it difficult to gauge where he would land if confronted with legislation in the upper chamber.
Kirk also fashioned himself a vigilant deficit hawk and a sharp critic of Obama's economic stimulus spending as well as the president's health care reform law, which the Republican said he would work to repeal. But against that backdrop, Kirk found himself struggling to explain his support for all of former President George W. Bush's red-ink stained budgets.
The biggest hurdle for Kirk proved to be of his own making. Over his years in the House, Kirk had sold himself as a kind of renaissance man with a broad resume of experience and accomplishment. Under the intense scrutiny of a statewide campaign, some of those claims were shown to be embellished.
A longtime Navy Reserve officer, Kirk was forced to apologize for inflating parts of his military record, including claims that he came under enemy fire in Iraq, that he ran the Pentagon war room and that he was the Navy's intelligence officer of the year.
Also called into question were Kirk's frequent claim of responsibility for having killed Alaska's infamous "bridge to nowhere," his boast of having served as an "officer" of a key World Bank subsidiary, and dramatic details of a teenage sailboat accident that he says altered his life.
(Tribune reporters Oscar Avila and Jeff Coen contributed to this report.)