President Barack Obama suffered a significant symbolic defeat on Tuesday when Republican Mark Kirk of Illinois won the US Senate seat he vacated in 2008 for the White House.
Kirk’s narrow victory over his challenger Alexi Giannoulias was one in a series of body blows suffered by shell-shocked Democrats in which Republicans gained at least six seats in the 100-seat Senate and regained control of the House of Representatives.
The position should have been an easy win for Democrats, who had only lost one US Senate race in Illinois in the past four decades.
But a series of scandals have undermined Democrats in the midwestern state, as has voter frustration embroiling the nation due to the deepest economic crisis in a generation.
Democrats could still hang onto the governor’s mansion in Illinois, however, with incumbent Pat Quinn ahead by nearly 11 000 votes with 97% of precincts reporting.
With thousands of mail-in ballots left to count, it could take several days before a winner is declared.
Democrats will also hold on to control of the state legislature, local media projected based on early results.
While the Senate race was also extremely tight — Kirk held a lead of 79 000 votes out of 3,6-million ballots cast — Giannoulias acknowledged that victory was out of reach and called Kirk to conceded.
“He made a promise to me that he will never forget who he is fighting for,” Giannoulias told supporters.
“I think he will make a strong senator … He’s our senator and he’s going to help a lot of people.”
Kirk, who won 48,3% of the vote, will begin work immediately because he also won a special election to replace sitting Senator Roland Burris.
Burris was tapped to replace Obama under a cloud of controversy shortly after then-governor Rod Blagojevich was arrested in December 2008 on a slew of corruption charges, including trying to auction off the appointment.
‘Thoughtful, independent leadership’
Blagojevich, ousted from office by a Democrat-led state legislature, was found guilty of lying to federal agents in August but faces a retrial after jurors deadlocked on the corruption charges.
Kirk celebrated his victory as a vote for “thoughtful, independent leadership” and the return of the Senate seat to “its rightful owners: the people of Illinois.”
“As your new senator I pledge to oppose any non-essential, non-emergency legislation coming through the lame duck session of the Congress,” Kirk told cheering supporters.
“Tonight we heard the American people declare their verdict on new taxes and spending by the Congress,” Kirk said.
“That mandate is gone. There is a new mandate to brings spending discipline back to Washington to restore prosperity and confidence.”
First elected to the House in 2000, Kirk developed a reputation in Washington as a moderate on social issues and a fiscally conservative policy wonk.
A longtime intelligence officer in the naval reserves, Kirk won a commendation for his 1999 service in Kosovo and has also served in Afghanistan, Iraq and Haiti.
He was forced to apologise in June for inflating his service record — including claims that he ran the Pentagon war room, came under enemy fire in Iraq and was the US Navy’s intelligence officer of the year.
Kirk (51) is a vocal supporter of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a staunch defender of Israel who has pushed for tougher sanctions against Iran.
He fought a bitter and ugly campaign against Obama’s one-time protege and basketball buddy Giannoulias, a first-term state treasurer.
Obama fought hard for Giannoulias (34) whose campaign had taken a major hit from the failure of his family’s bank.
Obama drew 35 000 people to a Chicago rally on Saturday and appeared at fundraisers and in ads where he called Giannoulias his “friend”.
“You can trust him,” Obama had insisted. “You can count on him.” – AFP