Democrats lose Obama's old Senate seat to Mark Kirk

Republican Mark Kirk won the close Illinois Senate race, despite several mistakes and President Obama's hard push hard for Alexi Giannoulias, the Democratic candidate.

Nam Y. Huh/AP
Republican Illinois senator-elect Mark Kirk celebrates in Wheeling, Ill., after defeating Democratic nominee Alexi Giannoulias Tuesday.
M. Spencer Green/AP
Alexi Giannoulias concedes the race for President Obama's former seat to Republican challenger Mark Kirk on Tuesday in Chicago.

If Tuesday’s election was a referendum on the Obama administration, nowhere was the result more symbolic than in his party’s loss of his old senate seat.

Despite heavy campaigning from President Obama, Alexi Giannoulias – a lackluster candidate for many Illinois voters – lost to Republican Rep. Mark Kirk.

It’s been a far better night for Democrats in the Senate than in the House. Democrats not only held onto control of the Senate, but prevailed in majority leader Harry Reid’s all-out scramble for reelection in Nevada.

Still, their losses in close elections in Pennsylvania and Illinois were big disappointments.

The Illinois loss is a particularly personal blow to Mr. Obama. In recent months, he’s visited Chicago, hosted fundraisers, and recorded "robo-calls" for Mr. Giannoulias, all in an effort to help Democrats hang on to the seat he vacated two years ago.

But it wasn’t enough.

And this in Obama’s home state, which had been considered reliably Democratic.

Still, a few other factors in Illinois are at play. Giannoulias never managed to generate any enthusiasm, even among many Democrats there. And he faced a candidate, in Congressman Kirk, who is a moderate Republican able to capture independent votes even though he had many missteps.

Then there’s the issue of how the seat was originally filled – by impeached ex-Gov. Rod Blagojevich, currently awaiting a retrial on corruption charges. His appointment of Roland Burris to the vacated Senate seat, despite controversy and suspicions that he might have tried to sell the seat, didn’t help. Had Blagojevich let his successor fill the seat – or let the state legislature order a special election back when Obama enjoyed more support – it’s unlikely that Democrats would be in this position now.

In Pennsylvania, meanwhile, Democrats’ disappointment hinges more on the fact that the race – once considered a virtually certain takeover for Republicans – was so close.

Democrat Joe Sestak finally began to close the gap in polls in recent weeks, and early numbers suggested he might actually beat his opponent, tea party favorite Pat Toomey.

But the last votes to be counted were from more conservative suburban counties, and Mr. Toomey prevailed.

As a consolation, Democrats learned of the Illinois and Pennsylvania losses at about the same time that they won Senate races in California and Nevada. And they might also take comfort in the fact that Kirk is unlikely to be a sure vote for Republicans.

In fact, Kirk may have more views in common with Democrats than Joe Manchin, the new Democratic senator-elect from West Virginia, who ran – and won – on an anti-Obama platform.

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