Republican Mark Kirk Defeats Alexi Giannoulias in Illinois Senate Race

Mark Kirk defeats Alexi Giannoulias, but both candidates turned off voters.

Nov. 3, 2010— -- Republican Congressman Mark Kirk will defeat Democrat State Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias in the bitterly contested race for the Illinois senate seat that launched Barack Obama to the White House, ABC News is projecting.

For Republicans, a victory in the Land of Lincoln represents a symbolic trophy in their efforts to wrest control of Congress from Democrats.

The race had been fraught with claims of dishonesty on both sides, leading to an exceptionally high level of distaste for both candidates, according to preliminary exit polls.

Of the 37 closely-watched Senate contests across the country, this was one of the nastiest, with Giannoulias portrayed as a mob banker and current Kirk as a serial liar.

The acrimony was reflected in preliminary exit poll results, with a third of the voters saying they felt neither candidate was honest and trustworthy. More than half the voters said both candidates attacked each other unfairly.

Further, more than half expressed either reservations about their candidate or said their vote simply reflected their dislike for the other candidate.

The outcome would have been inconceivable just two years ago as Democrats watched their favorite son carry the state by 25 points to win the presidency and the party sweep Republicans from every statewide office.

But then came the scandal and corruption trial involving former Gov. Rob Blagojevich, the national economic collapse, the controversial stimulus package and the debilitating fight over healthcare that transformed the political landscape.

Aware of Illinois' symbolic importance, Obama had sought to protect his seat with three visits to his home state, including one last weekend. Both the president and the first lady worked to keep the seat blue, appearing at fundraisers and in a campaign ad for Giannoulias, the 34-year-old state treasurer and self-styled Obama protégé.

But Illinois voters appeared split almost evenly on Obama's performance as president, according to the preliminary exit poll results. And a third said their vote for senator was specifically to express opposition to Obama.

About as many, though, said they were voting explicitly to show support for him.

The voters also said they were hard hit by the economy, with a remarkable four in 10 saying someone in their household had lost a job or been laid off in the past two years -- considerably higher than the three in 10 nationally who said the same.

More than a third said their financial situation was worse than two years ago. Fewer voters -- just a quarter -- were from union households than in any Senate race back to 1984.

Still, recent polls showed a race too close to call, with undecideds breaking evenly for both candidates.

Many factors influenced the race. The state's financial troubles, corruption scandals and continued angst over the economy resulted in a never-before-seen influx of outside cash in a state traditionally immune to the influence of third-party groups in elections.

The political cash fueled a wave of television attack ads against both candidates. The outside money made up the bulk of the more than $45 million spent since September on political advertising in Chicago's television market alone, according to published reports.

The ad spending included millions of dollars from groups not required to disclose the source or size of their donations. One such group was Crossroads Grassroots Political Strategies, co-founded by former George W. Bush political guru Karl Rove.

The last week of the campaign featured a $14 million ad blitz in which Giannoulias blasted Kirk as too cozy with Bush and Kirk dismissing his opponent as "too liberal, too immature."

Throughout the campaign, Giannoulias had to defend himself against attacks on his credibility, particularly because the bank his family owned collapsed and because of the bank's alleged ties to mobsters.

For his part, Kirk confronted persistent questions about whether he exaggerated his military record in the Navy.

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