State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, the Democratic Senate frontrunner in Illinois, escaped with a five-point victory Tuesday night, beating back a late surge by former Chicago Inspector General David Hoffman. Giannoulias will face Republican nominee Rep. Mark Kirk in November in a closely-watched contest for President Barack Obama's former Senate seat.
As expected, Kirk coasted to the GOP Senate nomination with a 37-point victory over conservative attorney Patrick Hughes, according to unofficial returns.
"Congressman Mark Kirk is poised to help lead the strongest Republican ticket that Illinois has seen in a generation," boasted Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele.
Giannoulias spent the final few days of the campaign on the defensive, fending off questions about the role he played in his family's troubled bank, which came under scrutiny for approving some bad loans.
But in the first few lines of his victory speech, the newly-minted Democratic nominee immediately made clear that he'll attempt to paint Kirk as someone out of touch with the harsh economic realities on the ground.
"Come November, Congressman, your days as a Washington insider are over," Giannoulias said.
But the GOP appeared almost giddy at the opportunity to take on Giannoulias.
On the heels of his speech, the National Republican Senatorial Campaign (NRSC) committee released a slick video comparing Giannoulias to fictional mob boss Tony Soprano and disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich. "Blagojevich. Rezko. And the mob. Alexi Giannoulias, he'd make Tony Soprano proud," blares the spot.
With Blagojevich's criminal trial set for June, questions about Giannoulias' ties to the former governor and bad bank deals are only likely to sharpen.
"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 Sen. Bob Menendez, chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
In House primaries Tuesday in Illinois, conservatives claimed victory in two of the most competitive Republican primaries.
The biggest upset of the night came in former House Speaker Dennis Hastert’s old district, where his son Ethan lost by 10 points to state Sen. Randy Hultgren, 55 percent to 45 percent. Hultgren's victory saw Republican primary voters reject the establishment favorite in favor of a candidate who openly touted his socially conservative credentials.
Hultgren will face Rep. Bill Foster (D-Ill.), who won a 2008 special election after the elder Hastert resigned from the seat.
“State Senator Randy Hultgren was a formidable opponent, in part, because he and I entered this race for the same reasons, Senator Hultgren and I believe that the voters of the 14th Congressional District deserve a representative who will fight to restore smaller government with less spending and lower taxes,” Hastert said in a statement.
In the House race to replace Kirk, businessman Bob Dold scored a surprisingly comfortable victory over state Rep. Beth Coulson, who campaigned as a centrist and held liberal positions on social and environmental issues in the state legislature. With all precincts reporting, Dold captured 39 percent of the vote to Coulson’s 31 percent.
Dold will face Democrat Dan Seals, who narrowly eked out a 658-vote victory over state Rep. Julie Hamos. Hamos outspent Seals, but his widespread name recognition in the district helped him prevail. Seals ran unsuccessfully against Kirk in 2006 and 2008, but should have better odds running against Dold, a political newcomer, in the Democratic-leaning district.
In the Democratic primary for governor, Gov. Pat Quinn led by a narrow 50.3 percent to 49.7 percent margin with 97 percent of the vote in. On the GOP side, Bill Brady had a razor-thin advantage over state Sen. Kirk Dillard with 97 percent in.