The Republican candidate pulled off a stunning upset to win the governor's mansion in the US state of Virginia Wednesday, US television networks projected, in a race seen as an early verdict on President Joe Biden's first year in office.
Newcomer Glenn Youngkin was 2.7 points ahead of Democrat Terry McAuliffe in the neck-and-neck tussle shortly after midnight, with more than 95 percent of the vote counted, prompting NBC, CNN and ABC to call the election for the Republican.
A harbinger of the parties' prospects in next year's midterm elections, the race was initially expected to be a comfortable Democratic win but instead became a toss-up in the closing days of the campaign.
A private equity multi-millionaire who has never run for office defeating a former popular Democratic governor will be seen as a disaster for Biden going into the all-important 2022 races that will determine who controls Congress.
Youngkin, who poured at least $20 million of his own fortune into the race, was due imminently to address cheering fans who had been celebrating for hours at his campaign headquarters.
The election, a neck-and-neck tussle for weeks, resonated nationwide as aproxy war between Biden and former president Donald Trump, who gave Youngkin his early backing.
Youngkin's campaign will now likely become a blueprint for Republicans across the country as they strategize on how to leverage Trump's base while avoiding becoming tainted by his toxic brand among moderates in the midterms.
- Difficult year -
The Democratic faithful had badly wanted the race to be a referendum on Trump but in reality he had little to do with the campaign and was never likely to prove the galvanizing nemesis they had hoped for.
Early in the campaign, Youngkin accepted Trump's endorsement and steered clear of criticizing the twice-impeached former president.
But he also pointedly avoided standing next to the Republican leader, who is seen as beyond the pale among independents in much of Virginia, or presenting himself as a Trump acolyte.
McAuliffe's loss will also almost certainly spook moderates on Capitol Hill and drive some away from supporting Biden's stalled $3 trillion vision for remaking the economy.
The long delays on passing promised social welfare and infrastructure packages are an echo of 2009-10, when the Democrats suffered big losses amid gridlock in Washington.
Elections were also being held in multiple other states, with voters overwhelmingly backing Democrat Eric Adams for mayor of New York and Democratic New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy just behind in a surprisingly close reelection battle he was nevertheless expected to win.
But Virginia is where the battle lines had been most visibly drawn.
- Culture war -
McAuliffe faced significant headwinds as he tried to mount a return to an office he held four years ago, with the majority party in Washington usually incurring losses during a president's first term.
Youngkin had to perform his own high-wire act, as the vast majority of Republicans believe Trump's false claims that the presidency was stolen in a fraudulent election, making acknowledging the truth politically risky.
He turned the conversation instead to local "culture war" issues like abortion, mask mandates and the teaching of America's racial history.
McAuliffe took an early lead in the race but his seven-point cushion evaporated in the final days, with a polling average by political analysis website FiveThirtyEight showing Youngkin ahead by one point on election day.
Leaning into his image as the establishment candidate, the 64-year-old McAuliffe sold himself as a former incumbent who brought back jobs after the worldwide financial crisis of 2008, and pledged to repeat the trick for the pandemic.
But nine months after Democrats added the US Senate to their victory in the White House, Virginians sought a fresh start, handing Youngkin 51 percent of the vote and the Republican Party its first statewide office in the so-called Old Dominion in over a decade.