A Republican who promised to create jobs won the Virginia governor’s office just a year after state voters helped a Democrat who promised change — and jobs — win the White House.
Bob McDonnell, a former state attorney general, won with nearly 59 percent of the vote Tuesday, claiming a mandate for his conservative agenda with help from independent voters.
They preferred him by nearly a 2-1 ratio over Democrat R. Creigh Deeds, exit polls showed, a shift from 2008, when independents in the state split between the parties.
The race, along with one in New Jersey, was closely watched as a potential referendum on Obama and his policies. Virginia voters were split on the president’s performance. While many said he was not a factor, about a quarter answered that their votes for McDonnell were also a rejection of Obama, who last year became the first Democrat to carry the state in 44 years.
McDonnell, 55, 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.
He built his political career as a social conservative and abortion opponent but focused his campaign on employment and closing the budget gap without raising taxes.
“We need somebody to actually think and be conservative about our spending in the state,” said Steve Robinson, 56, an auto mechanic from the Washington, D.C., suburbs who went to the polls with his wife and daughter. All voted for McDonnell.
Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Va. and the No. 2 Republican in the House, told NBC’s “Today” show Wednesday that independent voters were drawn to McDonnell because the party had a unified message focused on jobs and the economy.
Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, who was prohibited by the state Constitution from seeking a second term, said on “Today” that Deeds was an underdog from the start and that Virginia has a history of electing governors from the opposing party to the sitting president. Not since 1973 has the party in power in the White House won the governor’s race across the Potomac in Virginia.
As chairman of the Democratic National Committee, Kaine had directed more than $6 million from the DNC into his home state elections this year.
A year ago, Virginia Republicans were in disarray after losing the presidential race, three U.S. House seats and both Senate seats as conservatives and moderates blamed each other.
Tuesday, they were delirious. A victory party crowd screamed, waved signs and chanted “Go, Bob, go!” when he was declared the victor.
“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.
Republicans ended eight years out of the governor’s office, routed Democrats in races for lieutenant governor and attorney general, and expanded their majority in the House of Delegates.
“Just because we didn’t get the right result tonight doesn’t mean we can go home and whine,” Deeds told a somber crowd.
The vote was a rematch of the attorney general’s race four years ago. Then McDonnell squeaked out a win with less than a 400-vote margin.
This time Deeds, a moderate country lawyer and state senator, never energized the party’s liberal activists despite campaigning twice with Obama.
Republicans took advantage of public unease over major Obama initiatives on health care, energy and stimulus spending legislation.
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.
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Associated Press writers Michael Felberbaum, Steve Szkotak and Dena Potter contributed to this report.