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Illinois battle: Could Democrats lose Obama's old Senate seat?

Despite fundraising appearances from the Obamas, Alexi Giannoulias (D), the state treasurer, is in a dead heat with Mark Kirk (R), who represents Illinois’s 10th District.

US Senate candidate Alexi Giannoulias applauds US first lady Michelle Obama during a campaign fundraiser in Chicago Wednesday. Giannoulias is in a dead heat with his Republican opponent,Mark Kirk, for President Obama's old Illinois Senate seat.

John Gress/Reuters

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When Illinois voters go to the polls Nov. 2, they’ll be choosing a senator – one who will take the seat formerly held by Barack Obama.

But any guarantee to keep the seat occupied by a Democrat is far from assured.

Despite fundraising appearances from Mr. Obama last week and first lady Michelle Obama this week, Alexi Giannoulias (D), the state treasurer, is in a dead heat with Mark Kirk (R), who represents Illinois’s 10th District.

The split in the public is likely because of the negative tone of both campaigns, which has made neither candidate likable, say political insiders.

“They went negative instantly with accusatory ads,” says R. Craig Sautter, who teaches political science at DePaul University in Chicago. “So people are throwing up their hands because they hate both candidates.”

Each campaign is accusing the other of lying about his past. According to Mr. Giannoulias, Mr. Kirk’s credibility was cast in doubt when it was revealed that Kirk embellished his accomplishments as a naval intelligence officer and exaggerated his participation in the Gulf War. His experience did not take place overseas but was limited to intelligence work within the United States.

“I made mistakes with regard to my military misstatements. I was careless, and I learned a very painful and humbling lesson,” Kirk told David Gregory on NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday during a televised debate.

Giannoulias faced scrutiny from Kirk early in the campaign after federal regulators seized Broadway Bank, a North Side lending institution owned by the Giannoulias family. The bank failed because of defaulted loans it was owed, $20 million of which were given to at least two Chicago organized-crime figures. Giannoulias was the bank’s vice president and chief loan officer at the time of the loans.

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“We knew there were rumblings of problems,” he told Mr. Gregory Sunday. “These weren’t loans that I was intimately involved in. These weren’t relationships that I brought to the bank.”

In both situations involving Kirk and Giannoulias, Mr. Sautter calls them “false issues” because each candidate “clearly made mistakes and clearly apologized.” But despite their admissions, the race remains stalled, he says, because there is “no change in message” on either side.

“Negative ads drive down votership. They do tag the opponent, but in this case, both have been tagged,” Sautter says.

Some voters may have trust issues when it comes to this Senate seat. After all, this is the same seat at the heart of the ongoing troubles of impeached Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who is accused of scheming to sell the seat in exchange for campaign contributions and political appointments. Mr. Blagojevich’s trial this summer ended in a guilty verdict on one out of 24 counts. A retrial is set for January and will take up the counts that the jury deadlocked on.

The Blagojevich saga has made voters particularly sensitive about political figures who vouch for reform but who are hazy about their own record, says Cindi Canary, director of the Illinois Campaign for Political Reform, an advocacy group in Chicago.

“This is a difficult contest for [Illinois] voters because both candidates have some self-inflicted wounds,” Ms. Canary says. “In a time where the notion of trust in elected officials is suffering to begin with, it’s disheartening to voters.”


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