published Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Illinois GOP voters pick Mitt Romney; turnout low

Voters fill out ballots on Tuesday, March 20, 2012, at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Urbana, Ill. Voters around the state went to the polls for the Republican Party primary and other state and local races. (AP Photo/David Mercer)
Voters fill out ballots on Tuesday, March 20, 2012, at St. Matthew's Lutheran Church in Urbana, Ill. Voters around the state went to the polls for the Republican Party primary and other state and local races. (AP Photo/David Mercer)
Photo by Associated Press.

CHRISTOPHER WILLS, Associated Press

CHICAGO — Mitt Romney's perceived electability carried him to a major Illinois victory over Rick Santorum Tuesday in the Republican race for the White House, though turnout was light despite the rarity of the state actually playing a major role in a presidential primary.

In most years, presidential nominations are settled long before the Illinois primary, but Santorum's recent string of victories elsewhere made the home state of President Barack Obama relevant in the GOP contest.

The lack of statewide races beyond the presidential contest likely played a role in holding down turnout. It was the first Illinois primary since 2000 that didn't include a race for U.S. Senate or governor.

All but the most conservative Republicans backed Romney over Santorum, exit polling found.

The former Massachusetts governor was helped by the perception that he is more likely to defeat Obama this fall. Six in 10 voters said Romney had the best chance against Obama in November; only about 1 in 5 said so of Santorum.

Catherine Lopez, a homemaker from the Chicago suburb of Winnetka, was among those concluding Romney would be the best Republican to challenge Obama.

"OK, maybe he's not charismatic," Lopez said of Romney. "But we've had enough charisma with Obama. We need competence."

Outside the presidential spotlight, races for Congress and the Legislature could shape Illinois politics for years to come. Candidates are running in newly drawn political districts, so the officials ultimately elected will have a huge advantage in keeping those seats for the rest of the decade.

The Democratic majority at the state Capitol drew the new maps to make life difficult for Republicans. As a result, incumbent U.S. Reps. Donald Manzullo and Adam Kinzinger were battling for political survival in northwestern Illinois.

On the Democratic side, Jesse Jackson Jr., a Chicago congressman weakened by his admission of an affair and ties to imprisoned former Gov. Rod Blagojevich, was facing a challenge from former U.S. Rep. Debbie Halvorsen, of Crete, who represented some rural areas now part of Jackson's district.

Tony Horton of Chicago said he voted against Jackson because of the affair.

"How can I trust you to do the right thing for the state when you ain't doing the right thing for your household?" Horton said.

In the Legislature, at least four incumbent Republicans would be out after the primary. That's because eight lawmakers wound up facing each other under the new districts drawn by Democrats. The lawmakers at risk included the top Republican in DuPage County, a candidate for governor in 2010 and a member of the GOP's state central committee.

The primary also created awkwardness for the Democrats.

State Rep. Derrick Smith of Chicago, who was recently hit with federal bribery charges, was on the ballot. His opponent was a former Republican official claiming to be a Democrat, leaving party leaders the choice of backing a possible felon or a candidate who they consider a member of the opposite party.

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