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Six years ago, Illinois sent to the Senate an untainted young star generally regarded inside his party as the greatest orator since Demosthenes. This year, Illinois voters are faced with a more traditional choice between, as it’s been presented to them, a liar and a thief.
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Following an interlude marked by Barack Obama’s ascent and disgraced former Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s attempt to trade away his seat, democracy is at work again in the Land of Lincoln and Illinois has reverted firmly to type. The contest between Republican Mark Kirk and Democrat Alexi Giannoulias has played out in the crudest, nastiest terms, mixing the standard smears of modern campaigns with the state’s historic sense of cynicism.

It is Illinois politics at its most base and primal — and has resulted in a barn burner that is seen as the tightest Senate race in the country by one authoritative polling average. Kirk, who built a career as a rare GOP moderate in the House and became a favorite of New York Times columnist David Brooks, dresses one of his aides as a shark and sends him to Giannoulias press conferences to remind voters of the Democrat’s ties to mobster Michael “Jaws” Giorango. Giannoulias, who has adopted Obama’s style of speech, his mannerisms and a stated desire to “elevate” politics, is staking his hopes on convincing voters that Kirk is personally untrustworthy.

Some blame the flawed candidates for the almost ludicrously ugly contest. Others blame a national climate that has produced confrontation even in more demure states, like, well, anywhere. Senior Illinois Senator Dick Durbin — who has managed to stay largely out of the muck — told POLITICO that given the state’s “ethical climate,” voters are understandably easily convinced to think ill of their elected leaders.

“We’ve been battered pretty badly on the ethics front — we have one former governor in prison and another who’s been convicted of a felony,” he said. “You can understand there’s a lot of negative feelings and cynicism.”

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