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.
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.
‘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.