The race to win President Barack Obama’s former US Senate seat began in earnest on Wednesday, after Illinois’s treasurer and a Congressman from Chicago’s northshore suburbs triumphed in primary elections in the state.

Alexi Giannoulias, a 33-year-old protégé of Mr Obama, secured the Democratic nomination with 39 per cent of the vote. There was a late surge in support for David Hoffman, Chicago’s former inspector general, but as the polls predicted, Mr Giannoulias held on to his lead.

In the Republican race, there was no surprise as Mark Kirk, a five-term Congressman and naval officer, won the nomination with 57 per cent of the vote.

Republicans have targeted the Illinois Senate seat in November’s mid-term elections, hoping to build on the anger and frustration voters expressed in Massachusetts in January, where they won the US Senate seat formerly held by Ted Kennedy.

The party is homing in on a string of high-profile seats – such as Vice-President Joe Biden’s former Senate seat in Delaware and the Nevada seat occupied by Harry Reid, the Democratic Senate leader – with the aim of embarrassing the Obama administration.

Mr Giannoulias told the FT last week that he expected the mid-term elections to be challenging for the Democrats “given the mood, given how people feel about Washington”.

The Illinois race is likely to be a drawn-out, negative race, with Mr Giannoulias portraying his opponent as a Washington insider and Mr Kirk linking the young treasurer to Rod Blagojevich, the former governor of Illinois, who allegedly tried to sell the Senate seat, was subsequently impeached and is due to stand trial for corruption in June.

In a taste of things to come in the next nine months, Mr Giannoulias addressed Mr Kirk publicly following his victory. “It’s obvious that you’ve spent too many years in Washington, voting with the special interests to ship our jobs overseas, that you don’t know that (unemployment is an issue). But come November, congressman, your days as a Washington insider are over.”

Mr Kirk responded in his victory speech: “Over the last year, quiet despair has descended on the state of Illinois – a governor arrested, a senator’s seat disgraced, corruption rampant, unemployment rising and families struggling. The people of Illinois now see the arrogance of a one-party state.”

Pat Quinn, Illinois’s Democratic governor, looked to have narrowly survived a strong primary challenge from Dan Hynes, the state comptroller. He led Mr Hynes by 50.4 per cent to 49.6 per cent, making a recount a possibility.

Todd Stroger, incumbent president of the Cook County Board, was trounced in his primary, coming last in a field of four Democratic candidates. Toni Preckwinkle, a Chicago alderman, won convincingly.

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