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McAuliffe wins governor’s race

Virginia elected Democrat Terry McAuliffe as governor in Tuesday’s elections, defeating Republican Ken Cuccinelli in a victory that was narrower than many polls predicted.

Democrat Ralph Northam also won the lieutenant governor’s race, but Democrats fell short of a sweep, as Republican Mark Obenshain appeared poised to give Republicans their only statewide victory of the night. As of press time, Obenshain narrowly led the attorney general’s race over Democrat Mark Herring, with the chance of a recount looming. As midnight neared, Herring told reporters the race was “far from over” and “razor close” and that he’d have more information Wednesday.

The governor’s race turned out to be much closer than the polls suggested. As of press time, McAuliffe had 47 percent of the vote to Cuccinelli’s 45.6 percent in unofficial results, with some precincts yet to report.

Libertarian Robert Sarvis earned 6.6 percent of the vote, slightly lower than he’d been polling.

In his victory speech at a party at a Tysons Corner hotel, McAuliffe said the results show Virginians want to continue bipartisan leadership and to have a governor focused on economic issues and transportation improvements.

He promised that in the next three months, he’ll reach out to all General Assembly Republicans.

“I want to listen to them and I want to work with them so we can advance our shared goals,” he said. “The economic challenges facing Virginia are daunting.”

He also said he is “committed to finding consensus on how to reform and expand Medicaid,” an issue that was a clear divide between him and Cuccinelli during the campaign.

McAuliffe also addressed Cuccinelli and Sarvis supporters directly.

“I understand that emotions are raw. I have been there. I get it,” he said. “So while I promise you tonight that I will be a governor for all virginians, the real test is my actions when I take office. I expect you to hold me to my pledge, to work with both sides.”

In the final days, Cuccinelli had aggressively cast the rally as a referendum on the federal health law, and he didn’t stray from that theme in defeat, saying that the closeness of the race sent its own message.

“We said this race was a referendum on Obamacare, and although I lost, tonight you sent a message to the President of the United States that you believe Virginia understands that Obamacare is a failure, and you want to be in charge of your health care and not the government,” an emotional Cuccinelli told supporters in his concession speech at his election night event in Richmond. “This race came down to the wire because of Obamacare. … We were lied to by our own government in its effort to restrict our liberty.”

It was one of the most contentious and negative races in recent Virginia history, with polls showing voters didn’t much like either Cuccinelli or McAuliffe.

The tone of the campaigns didn’t help — Cuccinelli’s camp worked to portray McAuliffe as a career partisan fundraiser who didn’t know Virginia and had a history of sleazy business dealings, while McAuliffe’s painted Cuccinelli as a far-right ideological crusader who would try to outlaw contraception and make Virginia unfriendly for gays.

McAuliffe, a Democratic fundraiser who has never held elected office before and who lost the Democratic primary for governor four years ago, ran on promises to be a bipartisan coalition-builder who’d bring a business-like pragmatism to improving Virginia’s economy.

Cuccinelli, the current attorney general and a former state senator, ran as an experienced public official who would work to thwart federal government overreach and regulation.

Early on, Cuccinelli could have been considered the stronger candidate, especially given McAuliffe’s dismal showing in the 2009 gubernatorial primary.

But Cuccinelli was hampered by various events, not all in his control. The gift scandal that embroiled Gov. Bob McDonnell, who took thousands of dollars in gifts from a donor, also ensnared Cuccinelli, who’d taken lodging and travel from the same donor. It also sidelined McDonnell, who has made very few appearances with Cuccinelli and headlined no rallies for him.

McDonnell wasn’t the only no-show for Cuccinelli — some other big-name Republicans were markedly unenthusiastic about his candidacy. Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling, who’d planned to run for governor himself before Cuccinelli supporters got the method of nomination switched from a primary to a convention, openly expressed doubts that Cuccinelli would make a good leader, citing Cuccinelli’s ideological drive. The division between the two seemed to exemplify a rift between moderate and conservative factions of the Republican Party.

For McAuliffe, meanwhile, things went better than they did four years ago. With no competition for the nomination, he was able to focus on making a broad-based general election appeal early on. He also was able to turn his career as a fundraiser to good use, spending more than $33 million (as of the last report at the end of last month) to Cuccinelli’s approximately $21 million.

McDonnell, in a statement, congratulated McAuliffe and promised to work with him to ease the transition over the next few months.

“The privilege of serving as governor carries with it immense responsibility, and I know Terry McAuliffe will act in the best interests of the more than 8 million people who call Virginia home,” McDonnell said. ““Elections are long, tough, hard-fought affairs. But they have an end date. For the 2013 campaign, that date is today. Now, the signs, stickers and ads must be put away. In their place must come comity, cooperation and a commitment to working together, across party lines, to continue to improve the quality of life of all Virginians.”

House Speaker Bill Howell, R-Stafford, offered a slightly different take in his congratulatory statement.

“Throughout the now-concluded campaign, we have seen nothing but vague promises from candidate McAuliffe,” Howell said. “I am eager to hear what substantive policy proposals a Governor McAuliffe will offer. While we are not certain what his legislative priorities are, we hope that we can find common ground on the issues Virginians care about.”

Other Republicans were ready to turn to another fight — the race next year for the U.S. Senate seat held by Sen. Mark Warner.

“We need to take on and take down Mark Warner,” said Del. John O’Bannon, R-Henrico, at the Republican event.

Free Lance-Star reporter Portsia Smith contributed to this story.