RICHMOND, Virginia (CNN) – Buoyed by support from independent voters and lingering concerns over the state of the economy, Virginians elected Republican Bob McDonnell the 71st governor of the Commonwealth on Tuesday.
Republicans managed a sweep of the state’s top three offices for the first time since 1997, when Jim Gilmore helmed the ticket for the GOP. The election also upheld a familiar political pattern: going back to 1977, the party holding the White House has gone to lose the Virginia gubernatorial race.
The victory breathed new life into the Virginia Republican party, which has suffered a series of statewide defeats to Democrats over the last decade, including last November, when Barack Obama became the first Democrat to win the state at the presidential level since 1964. Democrats have won the governor's mansion in two consecutive elections and control both of the state's seats in the U.S. Senate.
“I pledge to you over the next four years action and results,” McDonnell told a gleeful audience at his victory party in Richmond. “We will leave Virginia better than we found it,” he said, invoking the old Boy Scout adage.
Two thirds of independent voters joined with a motivated Republican base to elect McDonnell, who vaulted to a 17-point victory over his Democratic opponent, Creigh Deeds.
“I wish tonight’s results were different,” Deeds said after the loss. “But now is not the time for bitterness, or retreat into our partisan corners - it’s time to overcome that disappointment with our determination to build a better Virginia, together.”
Though the election was cast by many as a referendum on President Obama, 56 percent of voters said the president was not a factor in the race, according to exit polls. But the national climate was undoubtedly in the mix: Almost half of voters cited the economy as the most important issue in the race, according to exit polls, and 57 percent of them cast their ballots for McDonnell.
“There are a lot of independents in Virginia,” said Ed Gillespie, the general chairman of McDonnell’s campaign. “It’s historically been one third Republican, one third Democrat and one third independent. That swing vote in the middle often reacts to what they see going on in Washington, and I think that clearly shaped the environment in this race today.”
Deeds failed to attract support from young voters and African-Americans, the constituencies that made up Obama’s winning coalition one year ago. Voters aged 18-29 made up 21 percent of the Virginia electorate in 2008; on Tuesday, only 11 percent of voters were under 29.
Although Deeds came close to winning 60 percent of the vote in Democratic-leaning northern Virginia– a threshold key to recent Democratic victories - turnout across the state was relatively low. Only 40 percent of voters cast ballots on Tuesday, lower than the 45 percent who voted in the 2005 governor’s race won by Democrat Tim Kaine and well below the 74 percent turnout rate in 2008.
McDonnell benefited from the motivated Republicans who did show up. More than a third of Tuesday’s voters “strongly” disapproved of how President Obama is handling his job, and nearly 100 percent of those voters chose McDonnell.
Virginians who voted for Republican presidential nominee John McCain in 2008 made up half of Tuesday’s electorate, while Obama supporters comprised 44 percent of the vote.
Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, the House Minority Whip, boasted that McDonnell’s campaign blueprint will be embraced as Republicans look ahead to the 2010 midterm elections.
“We are going to take the model that worked here in Virginia,” Cantor said. “Bob McDonnell is a common sense conservative Republican that was able to unite our party behind the concepts of limited government, lower taxes, individual responsibility and opportunity.”
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