CHICAGO (AFP) – Democratic rising-star Barack Obama became the lone African American senator, beating ultra-conservative talk show host Alan Keyes in a landslide in Illinois.
Television networks projected that Obama, 43, had soundly defeated Keyes in the contest to replace a retiring one-term Republican by some 70 percentage points, snagging a seat for the Democrats in the narrowly Republican-controlled Senate.
“Thank you, Illinois!” an beaming Obama shouted into the crowd at his victory rally. “Let me say how grateful I am to all of you for the extraordinary privilege of standing here.”
The charismatic Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and American mother, was a relatively obscure Senate hopeful just a few months ago but he catapulted to prominence after giving an electrifying keynote speech at the Democratic National Convention in July.
He was one of a handful of blacks running for US Senate seats this year, including his rival Keyes, but was considered the only African-American candidate with a realistic chance of winning.
Obama becomes only the third black senator in 150 years. The last African American to serve in the US Senate was Democrat Carole Moseley Braun, also of Illinois, who was defeated in 1998 by Fitzgerald after a single scandal-plagued term.
“The skinny kid with the funny name,” as Obama has described himself, grew up in Hawaii and Indonesia.
In the weeks since his much-lauded convention speech, Obama came to have such star power that he was recruited to travel to more than a dozen states to stump for Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry (news – web sites), as well as fellow congressional candidates.
“Barack Obama’s importance to our party and our effort to recapture the United States Senate simply cannot be overstated,” said Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.
Obama is widely touted for a future leadership position in his party — possibly even a US presidential candidate.
When it became clear that a seat in the US Senate from Illinois would be up for grabs in November, Obama, then a three-term state senator, jumped into the race.
His rhetoric stresses inclusiveness, and he has a lot of support among white liberals and white middle class voters in suburban Chicago, as well as blacks on the city’s South Side.
“There is not a black America, and a white America, a Latino America, and Asian America — we are one people, all of us pledging allegiance to the stars and stripes, all of us defending the United States of America,” Obama told the Democratic Convention.