CHICAGO — Emerging victorious in an ugly race for the president's former Senate seat, Republican Mark Kirk said Illinois voters clearly want him to rein in Democratic policies that increase spending and expand government.
But exit polling suggests that's not necessarily the case.
Kirk said his win was partly a rebuke of the White House – "I think to lose the president's seat sends a message," he said – but even more a rejection of Democratic leadership in Congress.
He promised to push for an extension of all the Bush-era tax cuts, including those for the wealthy, and to fight unnecessary spending.
"If there is a verdict in this election it's that we shouldn't raise taxes," Kirk told reporters at a downtown Chicago train station where he greeted commuters as they got off their trains. "Instead, we should cut spending."
Still, he vowed to work with Obama.
"He's our president and it's up to every member of Congress to work with him," he said.
However, only two out of 10 voters said cutting taxes should be the top priority for the next Congress. The rest split about evenly between balancing the budget and spending money to create jobs.
And only one-third of voters said they cast their ballot to express opposition to President Barack Obama.
Kirk has also called for repealing the health care overhaul approved by Congress this year, but polling conducted for The Associated Press found only four in 10 voters agree with that. The rest either want the health care plan left alone or expanded.
Kirk, a congressman and Obama critic, narrowly defeated Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a basketball buddy of the president who would have been a strong ally in Washington.
Obama and his White House team campaigned hard for Giannoulias, hoping to avoid perhaps the most politically embarrassing loss on a night of losses for Democrats.
But with 99 percent of the vote counted, Kirk had 48 percent to Giannoulias' 46 percent – squeaking out a victory despite the revelation that he had made false claims about his military record.
The Senate campaign was a bitter exchange of charges and countercharges.
Giannoulias faced attacks over his family's failed bank, which gave loans to two men involved in organized crime. Meanwhile, Kirk was forced to apologize after the disclosure that he had exaggerated his military accomplishments.
On Wednesday, though, Kirk's theme was one of conciliation. He said, for example, that he hoped to have a beer with Giannoulias later in the day at the famed Chicago watering hole, the Billy Goat Tavern. And he promised to work with Obama once he got to Washington.
"He's our president and it's up to every member of Congress to work with him," Kirk said.
Even though he won, Kirk has some work to do gaining the trust of Illinois voters. Exit polls found that more than a third of voters considered neither he nor Giannoulias to be honest and trustworthy.
Trust may have been especially important in the race because of its links to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich. The Democratic governor was removed from office in disgrace after federal prosecutors alleged he tried to sell the appointment as Obama's temporary Senate replacement.
But before leaving office, Blagojevich appointed former Illinois Attorney General Roland Burris, who was widely criticized for accepting the post and decided not to seek a full term.
Kirk not only won a term beginning in January. He also was selected to replace Burris and serve the final weeks of the term that began six years ago with Obama's election. Kirk could take office within days, and he promises to block any Democratic efforts to pass costly proposals in a lame-duck session. On Wednesday there was still some confusion about when that would be. Kirk said he hoped to be sworn in as soon as possible.
Giannoulias played professional basketball in Greece and became a friend and basketball partner of Obama's. Encouraged by the future president, he ran for Illinois treasurer and won on the strength of his experience as an executive at his family's Broadway Bank.
Four years later, he set his sights on winning Obama's former Senate seat. But his banking experience worked against him when the bank failed and was taken over by federal regulators. Giannoulias also had to explain – again and again – his role in the bank's loans to two people with ties to organized crime and to corrupt political insider Antoin "Tony" Rezko.
He faced Kirk, who looked like the clear favorite with his mix of moderate social views and military experience. Then came the revelation that after long saying he was the Navy's "intelligence officer of the year," Kirk never actually won that award.
It turned out that at various times Kirk, a commander in the Navy Reserve, also had falsely said he served in the Gulf War and the 2003 invasion of Iraq, claimed to run the Pentagon war room, and said he came under enemy fire on flights over Kosovo and Iraq.
Associated Press writers Don Babwin, Carla K. Johnson and Michael Tarm contributed to this report.