CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia (CNN) – State Sen. Creigh Deeds emerged from a tough and expensive three-way primary battle to capture Virginia's Democratic nomination for governor on Tuesday, a victory that immediately put him in the crosshairs of national Republicans eager to reinvigorate their party with an off-year triumph in the commonwealth this November.
Riding a late burst of momentum, Deeds defeated former Democratic National Committee chairman Terry McAuliffe, who raised more than $7 million for his primary bid, and former House delegate Brian Moran, who had positioned himself as the most progressive candidate in the race.
The Democratic nominee will now face Republican Bob McDonnell in the general election.
In his victory speech, standing before a blue and white backdrop bearing a striking resemblance to signage used by the Obama campaign last year, Deeds immediately sought to tie McDonnell to former president George W. Bush, accusing both men of supporting a "disastrous economic and social agenda."
"We all know how those Bush economic policies turned out," he said.
Deeds promised he would follow in the footsteps of Democratic governors Mark Warner and Tim Kaine by focusing on education, improving transportation and creating new energy jobs.
The Republican National Committee quickly sent out a press release attacking Deeds as a tax-hiking liberal, but Deeds' Republican rival for the governorship, Bob McDonnell, took a more gracious tone. He released a Web video congratulating the man he defeated by just 323 votes in the state's historically-close Attorney General's race just four years ago.
"Creigh ran a great campaign," McDonnell said. Smiling, he added: "It was a tough primary, and I have to say I'm sorry to see it end."
Kaine, who is also serving as the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, will appear with Deeds at a photo-op in Richmond on Monday. Kaine released a statement praising Deeds as a problem-solver and declaring that Virginia Democrats "take a pragmatic, results-oriented approach to politics."
Although many observers expected a late night of watching election returns, Deeds claimed victory a little more than an hour after the polls closed thanks in large part to a surprisingly strong showing in northern Virginia. In Fairfax County - the most populous county in the state - Deeds won almost half of the vote, with Moran and McAuliffe splitting the rest.
Deeds won 10 of the state's 11 congressional districts, including the 8th district in northern Virginia, which is represented in Congress by Moran's older brother, Jim.
While McAuliffe and Moran underperformed in their native northern Virginia, Deeds managed to rack up large margins in the state's rural precincts in the south and west – his base of support. He also ran strong against McAuliffe in Richmond and Hampton Roads, where the former DNC chairman had worked hard to attract African-American voters.
Deeds' late surge in the campaign was sparked last month, when the Washington Post endorsed him over the two other candidates, writing that Deeds "may not be the obvious choice in the June 9 primary, but he's the right one." Deeds and his campaign used that endorsement in television ads and in mailers - a push that also helped him raise thousands of crucial dollars down the stretch.
More than 300,000 voters - about six percent of the total electorate - turned out to vote on Tuesday, despite intense thunderstorms that rumbled across the commonwealth. Although strategists from all three campaigns privately predicted that a higher-than-expected turnout might favor McAuliffe, Bill Clinton's longtime friend and confidante ultimately came up short.
McAuliffe called the race "quite a ride."
"We ran a great race," he said. "Thousands of volunteers, a great message. It was a great race. Hopefully I shook it up a bit for everyone."
In his concession speech, Moran said the Democratic nominee will be stronger in November because of the tough primary, which at times
"Because of this primary, Creigh Deeds is now an invincible candidate," Moran said, shortly after the race was called for Deeds.
Deeds is cut from a somewhat different cloth than the last two Democrats to hold the governor's mansion in Richmond - Warner and Kaine - neither of whom had deep Virginia roots when they ran for the office. Deeds, meanwhile, was born and raised in Bath County, a traditionally conservative part of the commonwealth. He has a donkey named "Truman" and his mother still works as a rural mail carrier.
He also boasts a conservative voting record on social issues like same-sex marriage and is a strong supporter of second amendment rights, a stance that drew a flurry of attacks from his rivals in the final week of the campaign. In 2005, Deeds earned the endorsement of the National Rifle Association – over McDonnell – when the two candidates ran for Attorney General.
State Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw, a Deeds backer from Fairfax County, promised that Deeds is the most electable Democrat in a state that is still more purple than blue, despite Obama's victory here last fall.
"If I was Bob McDonnell, I'd be scared out of my mind right now," Saslaw said.