CHICAGO - Illinois voters in the nation's first primary picked candidates yesterday for an election in which Democrats will try to defend the governor's office and a U.S. Senate seat from a Republican Party eager to exploit political disarray in President Barack Obama's home state.
The targets include the Senate seat Obama held before moving to the White House.
Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias won the Democratic Senate nomination. He will face Republican Mark Kirk, a moderate five-term congressman. Kirk is likely to argue that Giannoulias, 33, who previously worked for a family bank that's now in financial trouble, lacks the experience and judgment to serve in the Senate.
Losing the Senate seat in the increasingly Democratic-leaning state would be a bigger personal embarrassment for Obama than Republican Scott Brown's upset victory last month in Massachusetts, which took away the late Edward M. Kennedy's Senate seat.
The GOP also hopes to win the governor's mansion after years of turmoil under Democrats. First Gov. Rod Blagoje-vich was arrested and kicked out of office on federal corruption charges, including allegations he tried to sell an appointment to Obama's seat. His successor, Pat Quinn, then got into a vicious primary battle.
The governor's race, for both Democrats and Republicans, remained close. Earlier in the day, Quinn sounded prepared for victory or defeat.
Quinn sought a full term after being thrust into office a year ago when Blagojevich was expelled. The nominees who emerge from the bruising midterm primary will fight for the chance to run a state so deep in debt it can't pay bills on time and must consider painful service cuts, higher taxes or both.
It initially appeared Quinn would easily win the Democratic nomination. But that was before The Associated Press disclosed his administration was quietly granting early release to some prison inmates, including violent offenders.
It also was before his opponent, Comptroller Dan Hynes, introduced an ad featuring footage of the late Chicago Mayor Harold Washington, a revered figure to many black voters, harshly criticizing Quinn.