In one of the biggest Senate races in the nation, Republican Mark Kirk on Tuesday won the seat once held by President Barack Obama, a highly sought after prize for the GOP.
In a battle centering on character more than ideology, Kirk, a five-term House member, beat Illinois state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias in a race that had been deadlocked in the polls most of the year. Kirk squeaked through with about three points with 97 percent of precincts reporting, but not all mail ballots had been counted.
Giannoulias called Kirk to concede and congratulate his rival, and thanked supporters gathered in a ballroom at the Fairmont Hotel in Chicago "for believing in me."
The magic that carried Obama from the U.S. Senate to the White House also did not translate to others in Illinois, as Republicans picked up two and possibly three House seats held by Democrats and the House seat Kirk gave up to run for the Senate.
The Obama team invested heavily in the Senate race, capped by a rally Saturday night in Hyde Park, a few blocks from the president's Chicago home. On Sunday, Kirk was bolstered at an event by Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown -- a hero among Republicans for winning last January the seat held by the late Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy.
During the campaign, the Obama White House sent out everything it had for Giannoulias: Obama made three visits to Chicago -- for two fundraisers for Giannoulias and the weekend rally and breakfast for Giannoulias and Gov. Pat Quinn. First Lady Michelle Obama kicked off her political swing on Oct. 13 with stops in Milwaukee and Chicago, where she headlined a fundraiser for Giannoulias. The president and first lady also appeared in a Giannoulias ad. Obama on Tuesday gave interviews to two Chicago radio stations with African-American audiences in the hopes of boosting black voter turnout for Democrats.
Vice President Joe Biden visited twice for Giannoulias; Education Secretary Arne Duncan came home to help. Top White House staffers David Axelrod and Jim Messina pitched in for the Democrat as did David Plouffe, who managed the 2008 Obama presidential campaign from its national headquarters here.
Kirk, 51, who represents Chicago's north suburban 10th congressional district, ended up with a bigger fight than anyone anticipated, given that Giannoulias, 34, started out wounded. He was hit in the Democratic primary with allegations that he botched the administration of a state college savings program called Bright Start, a charge Giannoulias strongly denied. He also was dogged by controversies stemming from loans his family-owned Broadway Bank made to crime figures when he was a loan officer at the bank.
At the beginning of the long general election season -- Illinois had the first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 2 -- the Illinois Senate race was seen as Kirk's to lose. Kirk ran to the right during the GOP primary. By the tail end of the general election campaign, Kirk was brandishing moderate credentials in an appeal to independents.
"I am the candidate that will vote to spend less, to borrow less, and to tax less, to help save our economy. I am a fiscal conservative, a social moderate, and a national security hawk; a centrist, who will help bring thoughtful, independent leadership to Illinois and the United States Senate," Kirk said in his second of three debates with Giannoulias.
Giannoulias portrayed Kirk as a political chameleon. "The people of Illinois may not always agree with everything I say, but they'll always know where I stand," Giannoulias said during the first debate.
Democrats started out on the defensive once former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested a few weeks after Obama was elected, charged with trying to sell Obama's Senate seat and other acts of corruption. In a state seen as solidly blue, Blagojevich, facing federal indictment, appointed a political has-been to the Obama seat, Sen. Roland Burris.
Instead of entering the 2010 campaign with a strong Democratic incumbent, Democrats were in a big fight for an open seat.
The dynamic changed during Memorial Day weekend, when the Washington Post revealed that Kirk, a 21-year Navy reservist, wrongly claimed that he won a military award when in fact the honor went to his entire unit. After that, a series of other embellishments surfaced, touching on his military career as an intelligence officer, his stint as a teacher, even a story he told about almost drowning in Lake Michigan.
Kirk's campaign stalled over the summer as polls showed week after week the Kirk/Giannoulias race in a deadlock.
Both men were the target of millions of dollars of negative ads. Kirk's side was helped by commercials bankrolled by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and groups associated with American Crossroads, linked to Bush political guru Karl Rove.
Kirk was born in Champaign, in central Illinois and raised mainly in the Chicago suburbs. He attended Blackburn College in Illinois, the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, receiving his undergraduate degree from Cornell, a master's degree from the London School of Economics and a law degree from Georgetown.
Giannoulias, a Chicagoan, picked up his undergraduate degree from Boston University and a law degree from Tulane.