Ricardo Rosselló, a pro-statehood candidate for Puerto Rico governor, won Tuesday, after campaigning on a pledge to turn the economically troubled U.S. territory into the 51st state during his term.
Rosselló of the New Progressive Party had nearly 42 percent, or 566,000 votes, when his main opponent, David Bernier, conceded defeat with more than 70 percent of precincts reporting. Bernier had more than 527,000 votes or 39 percent.
"I'm honored Puerto Rico gave me an opportunity. ... We will establish a quality of life that will allow (Puerto Ricans) to return to the land where they were born," the 37-year-old Rosselló said of the more than 200,000 islanders who have left to the U.S. mainland during its economic crisis.
Rosselló, a scientist and the son of a former governor who also sought statehood for Puerto Rico, argues that barring island residents from voting for president deprives 3.5 million people of their full rights. He also says statehood would boost an economy mired in a decade-long slump, a belief that resonated with many voters.
"It's terrible," Iris Highley, 72, said of not being able to vote for president. "Statehood will provide equality to the people of Puerto Rico."
Rosselló recently told The Associated Press that as governor he would draft a state constitution, hold elections to choose two senators and five representatives to Congress and send them to Washington to demand statehood, a strategy used by Tennessee to join the union in the 18th century.
Rosselló's win throws into question the future of the party led by Bernier, who has acknowledged that Puerto Rico's commonwealth status - on which his party was built - is no longer viable.
"We fought a hard and intense battle," Bernier said as he conceded defeat. "It's a very difficult moment for the history of this party."
Bernier was hurt by anger over the economy, a corruption scandal involving his Popular Democratic Party and the emergence of two independent candidates who appealed to an increasing number of voters.
Gov. Alejandro Garcia Padilla, a member of Bernier's party, did not seek a second term.