Image: Governor-elect Bob McDonnell
Steve Helber  /  AP
Republican Governor-elect Bob McDonnell waves to the crowd at his victory party in Richmond, Va., Tuesday. Unofficial results showed McDonnell, a conservative and former state attorney general, with about 60 percent of the vote over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds. He will be the state's first Republican governor in eight years.
updated 11/4/2009 8:58:07 AM ET 2009-11-04T13:58:07

Republican Bob McDonnell tapped Virginia's independent voters Tuesday to win a landslide election for governor just a year after the state bucked tradition and voted for Barack Obama.

McDonnell, a conservative former state attorney general, had about 60 percent of the vote with most precincts reporting. He takes back the governor's office after eight years of Democrat control.

The election largely turned on independent voters, who preferred McDonnell by nearly a 2-1 ratio over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, exit polls showed. It was a shift from 2008, when independents in the state split about evenly between the parties.

"I just got tackled by my five kids and my wife, and there are a lot of tears on my cheeks right now," McDonnell told The Associated Press.

The race, along with one in New Jersey, has been closely watched as a potential referendum on Obama and his policies. Obama was the first Democrat in 44 years to carry Virginia in a presidential race.

Voters split on Obama's performance
Virginia voters were split on Obama's job performance, exit polls showed. While many said the president was not a factor in their votes for governor, about a quarter said their vote for McDonnell was also a rejection of Obama.

"I hope this will kind of send a message to Congress that you better do what we want or we won't re-elect you," said Linda Doland, 60, a nanny in suburban Richmond who voted for McDonnell.

"You're supposed to represent us," she said. "I don't think the present administration is really listening to the people."

Voters expressed angst about major Obama initiatives such as health care, energy and stimulus spending. But McDonnell dominated the campaign's central issues: jobs and the economy.

In Associated Press surveys at polling places statewide, about eight in 10 voters said they were worried about the direction of the nation's economy, and the majority of those favored McDonnell.

McDonnell, 55, never trailed in polls, even though his lead narrowed in September after news reports of a graduate thesis he wrote in 1989 that disparaged working women, gays and unmarried "cohabitators." He dismissed it as a forgotten academic exercise and said raising three daughters had changed his views.

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Anne Beckett, 53, of Roanoke voted for Deeds, and said she feared McDonnell would advance a conservative social agenda.

"I don't like a Christian-based, pro-life attitude," she said.

McDonnell will succeed Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, who is barred by state law from seeking a second term. Kaine directed $6 million in DNC money into Virginia for Deeds and other Democratic candidates.

Video: Republicans win Va., N.J. governor races

‘We got a whole pile of work in front of us’
Deeds, a moderate country lawyer and state senator, never energized the party's liberal activists despite campaigning twice with President Barack Obama.

"We've got a whole pile of work in front of us, and just because we didn't get the right result tonight doesn't mean we can go home and whine," Deeds told a somber Democratic crowd.

Obama last year powered a political tsunami that swept three of Virginia's 11 U.S. House seats from the GOP. It also put both U.S. Senate seats in Democratic hands for the first time since 1970.

Republicans were in disarray after the 2008 loss, but took advantage of public unease over major Obama initiatives on health care, energy and stimulus spending legislation.

Not since 1973 has the party in power in the White House won the governor's race across the Potomac in Virginia.

The exit poll of 2,124 Virginia voters was conducted for AP by Edison Research in a random sample of 40 precincts statewide. Results were subject to sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points, higher for subgroups.

In other Virginia races, Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling won re-election over Democrat Jody Wagner, and Republican Kenneth Cuccinelli was elected attorney general over Democrat Steve Shannon with about the same share of the vote as McDonnell. All 100 seats in the House of Delegates were up for election, with contested races for 69 seats.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Is election a referendum on Obama?

  1. Closed captioning of: Is election a referendum on Obama?

    >> chuck todd , thank you very much. david gregory is moderator of "meet the press." good morning to you, david.

    >> good morning, meredith.

    >> as chuck just reported, the president did stump for the two losing gubernatorial candidates in new jersey and virginia . republicans are saying this morning it is a repudiation of the president's administration. fair statement or overstated?

    >> well, probably unfair when it comes to a repudiation of the president himself, because his own approval numbers in new jersey and virginia are still quite high. but as chuck points out, it's the obama coalition that was so successful in 2008 that did not show up -- independent voters, younger voters, african-american voters. that was part of a unique coalition that he put together for his presidency. this anti-incumbency mood is significant. it says that that change message that obama carried on to victory is still holding true, but now it's being used against democratic incumbents.

    >> yeah, you mentioned the independents. and as you pointed out, they went heavily for obama in 2008 . this time they went with the republicans. so, what is the lesson that both the republicans and democrats should take away from that?

    >> well, again, it's the anti anti -incumbency mood, it's the fact that there's less trust of government, that there's a disaffection with both parties, which is why i think this new york 23 race is important, because it's a fight between conservatives and moderates in the republican party . for republicans, they make the argument here that the independent wave is part of a different atmosphere, that there's concern about the debt or health care . some of obama 's policies, some of the democratic policies. that's the message that they hope to build on and they will try to nationalize that message today and going forward.

    >> let's talk a little bit about the congressional race in the 23rd district in new york . it sort of pointed out the descension within the republican party between the moderates and those that are far more conservative. in the end, it was the democrat who won that particular race, so how does the outcome of that race factor into national politics?

    >> there's still going to be a big fight in the republican party about what the party should be. should it be a more conservative party that gets back to its smaller government days or should it be a moderate party that can change some positions to get more independent voters to expand that coalition? what's striking is you have the results in new york 23, which democrats will hold up as a great result for them, but then you have mcdonnell winning in virginia , a purple state . he's a social conservative for his political career, yet runs more as a pragmatist, a centrist and wins big among independent voters. that dynamic within the republican party , that fight about what it wants to be is going to go on.

    >> midterm elections next year, do you think that legislators will be looking at the results from last night and recalculating how they're going to come down on tough issues like health care reform ?

    >> it's going to be a real fear within the white house that those moderate democrats are going to now find it more difficult to cast a difficult vote on health care that could increase the deficit, that may be unpopular with key parts of their constituencies as they face voters next year. that's something that the president's going to have to really work on.

    >> all right. david gregory , thank you very much.

    >> thanks, meredith.

    >> it is 7:08. for more, here's matt.

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