RICHMOND - Democratic Party insider Terry McAuliffe won the Virginia governor's race on Tuesday by narrowly beating Republican Ken Cuccinelli, a Tea Party favourite who seized on the rocky launch of the US healthcare programme to try to keep the contest close.
State election board results showed McAuliffe, a Democratic fundraiser and close friend of former President Bill Clinton, had 48 per cent of the vote to 45 per cent for Cuccinelli, Virginia's attorney general, with almost all precincts reporting.
McAuliffe squeaked to a win in the Southern state with a strong showing from wealthy, liberal-leaning Washington suburbs.
His victory cemented Virginia as a battleground state for both parties ahead of midterm congressional elections next year and the presidential election in 2016.
McAuliffe, who had never held elected office, told cheering supporters in Tysons Corner, a Washington suburb, that the race had never been simply choosing between Democrats and Republicans.
"It was a choice between whether Virginia would continue the mainstream bipartisan tradition that has served us so well over the last decade," he said, his voice hoarse.
Record amounts of outside money flowed into the campaign as McAuliffe heavily outspent Cuccinelli and national Democratic figures attempted to make the vote a referendum on the Tea Party, a small-government wing of the Republican Party.
Trailing in polls, Cuccinelli, 45, attacked President Barack Obama's signature healthcare programme, which has been plagued with technical difficulties since its Oct. 1 launch, and narrowed McAuliffe's lead. McAuliffe supports the law known as Obamacare.
A CNN exit poll showed that 53 per cent of Virginia voters opposed Obamacare, including four in five of those casting ballots for Cuccinelli.
In his concession speech, Cuccinelli said of the healthcare plan, "We were lied to by our own government in an effort to restrict our liberties." McAuliffe, 56, tied Cuccinelli to last month's federal government shutdown, blamed by most Americans on Republicans and especially the Tea Party. Virginia was hit hard by the shutdown since it relies more than most states on federal paychecks and contracts.
Cuccinelli also was hurt by a scandal involving Virginia's Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, who is under investigation for taking gifts from a businessman. Cuccinelli apologised in September for taking gifts from the same businessman.
Under state law, McDonnell could not run for a second consecutive term.