CHICAGO — Illinois voters in the nation's first primary picked candidates Tuesday 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 the 33-year-old Giannoulias, 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.
"We know that one political party cannot hold all the answers and that one political party should never hold all the power," Kirk said in a statement.
The GOP also hopes to win the governor's mansion after years of turmoil under Democrats. First Gov. Rod Blagojevich 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.
"There's an old saying, 'One day a peacock, the next day a feather duster,'" he said after walking to vote near his home. "I have to be ready for anything."
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.
Quinn responded by linking Hynes, whose office regulates cemetery finances, to the scandal at a historic black cemetery outside Chicago where bodies were double-stacked in graves or dumped in weeds. He alleged Hynes ignored the atrocities at Burr Oak Cemetery, the resting place of civil rights-era lynching victim Emmett Till and other prominent African-Americans, because he lacks "human decency."
Republicans believe they have a strong shot at the governor's mansion because both Democratic candidates proposed income tax increases and because Democrats have been so tainted by Blagojevich.
Most of the exchanges among the Republican candidates for governor focused on who was most adamantly opposed to raising taxes. Polls suggested the top contenders were state Sen. Kirk Dillard, businessman Andy McKenna and former Attorney General Jim Ryan.
The Blagojevich scandal could play a role in the Senate race as well. The incumbent, Roland Burris, chose not to run because the former governor had appointed him to the seat – sullying his reputation so badly he could find little political support.
Obama, who cast an absentee ballot, tried to recruit some big-name Democrats, including popular Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, but came up empty.
The Democrats who did get in the race had their own troubles. Giannoulias, a basketball buddy of the president, is carrying the baggage of his family bank and questions about a treasurer's office savings program that lost millions of dollars.
With 94 percent of precincts reporting, Giannoulias had 321,536 votes, or 39 percent. Former prosecutor David Hoffman had 279,822 votes, or 34 percent, and Chicago Urban League President Cheryle Jackson had 159,913, or 19 percent.
Republican leaders rallied around Kirk as their choice for the party nomination, despite complaints from some GOP activists that Kirk's support of gun control and abortion rights makes him too liberal.
With 94 percent of precincts reporting, Kirk had 388,673 votes, or 57 percent. His nearest competitor, Patrick Hughes, had 132,788 votes, or 19 percent.
Associated Press Writers Carla K. Johnson and Sophia Tareen in Chicago, Jim Suhr in Troy, and AP Photographer M. Spencer Green in Chicago contributed to this report.