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Virginia governor's race too close to call

Cuccinelli_vote.jpg

Monday, Nov. 4, 2013: Ken Cuccinelli, the GOP candidate in Virginia gubernatorial race with wife Teiro at a rally at Republican headquarters in Richmond, Va. (AP)

The polls are now closed in Virginia, and Fox News can report that Democrat Terry McAulliffe has a slight lead over Republican Ken Cuccinelli, although it is too early to call the race.

According to the latest wave of Fox News exit polls, the surprising closeness of the race can be attributed - in part - to the disastrous rollout of ObamaCare.

Virginia voters in general oppose ObamaCare by a margin of 53 to 45 percent, according to exit polls. Of those who oppose the law, 80 percent voted for Cuccinelli and 11 percent voted for McAuliffe.

McAuliffe is faring well among women voters and is also performing strongly in the Washington D.C. suburbs in Northern Virginia. Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis remains a distant third, although he is garnering a fair amount of votes from young people.

As polls closed, so did the hard-fought Virginia gubernatorial race between an establishment Democrat and a Republican who warned that a vote for his rival was a vote for ObamaCare. 

“ObamaCare has been a big part of why this race is a horse race at this point,” Republican nominee Ken Cuccinelli said after casting his vote Tuesday morning.

The race between the Tea Party-backed Cuccinelli and Democrat Terry McAuliffe was billed as the marquee 2013 gubernatorial contest and has lived up to expectations through the finals days -- with the better-funded McAuliffe clinging to a single-digit lead.

The race, in which the candidates raised a combined record $54 million, has also been marked by negative ads and accusations of questionable ethics -- and its results could be a bellwether for the 2014 and 2016 races.

The results are expected to show whether a swing state such as Virginia could elect a Tea Party-backed governor. They are also expected to gauge whether Republicans can continue to ride Americans’ dissatisfaction with ObamaCare and if Democrats can reestablish a political foothold in the South.

McAuliffe voted before dawn and visited campaign offices to help sustain his six-point lead in the polls.

Cuccinelli, the state’s attorney general, made several final-hour campaign stops in hopes his conservative supporters give him a come-from-behind win.

He told reporters after voting in northern Virginia that a strong GOP turnout was “absolutely critical.”

“I hear people's aspirations and their complaints,” Cuccinelli said. “One of their complaints is they don't like how things run. My answer is: 'Well make sure you show up.' …The world is run by the people who show up.”

A third candidate, libertarian Robert Sarvis, also was on the ballot.

Turnout was expected to be low -- 40 percent was the figure both sides were using. And both candidates were mustering their campaign organizations to find every last supporter. The negative tilt of the campaigns turned many voters off, and strategists in both parties predicted the outcome could be decided by just a few thousand votes.

Richard Powell, a 60-year-old retired IT manager who lives in Norfolk, described himself as an independent who frequently votes for members of both parties. He said he cast his ballot for McAuliffe because he was more determined not to vote for Cuccinelli, whom he said overreaches on a variety of medical issues.

Voters were barraged with a series of commercials that attempted to tie Cuccinelli to restricting abortions.  

"I'm not in favor of abortion -- let's put it that way -- but I find that restricting abortion causes far more social harm than allowing abortion, so that was an issue for me," Powell said.

Both candidates got help from some big names. Former President Bill Clinton and wife Hillary  made appearances in the final weeks for McAuliffe, a major fundraiser for the political couple and a former Democratic National Committee chairman.

President Obama campaigned for him last weekend. First lady Michelle Obama lent her voice to a radio advertisement, and Vice President Joe Biden spoke to supporters on the eve of the election.

Cuccinelli got visits from Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and Sens. Marco Rubio, Florida, and Rand Paul, Kentucky -- all potential presidential contenders in 2016.

The winner will succeed term-limited Gov. Bob McDonnell, a Republican, for a four-year term starting in January. Obama won the state in 2008 and 2012, but far fewer voters participate in off-year elections and that gives the GOP better odds.

Republicans bet a deeply conservative candidate would be their best shot, passing over a lieutenant governor for Cuccinelli, an early crusader against ObamaCare.

"I'm scared to death about what ObamaCare is doing to Virginians, and Terry McAuliffe is scared to death what ObamaCare is doing to Terry McAuliffe,” said Cuccinelli, who has tried to make the election into a referendum on the law, which McAuliffe supports.

Democrats chose a loyal partisan in McAuliffe and recruited the Clintons to raise millions for him and rally the party faithful.

The 45-year-old Cuccinelli went into Election Day trying to overcome a lingering wariness among fellow Republicans about his conservative views, including those on climate change.    

The 56-year-old McAuliffe is trying to avoid an eleventh-hour error. On Tuesday morning, McAuliffe stopped by a campaign office to rally volunteers near Richmond. He urged them to knock on one more doors and phone one more friend as the campaign neared its end. McAuliffe said that effort was needed to combat low turnout.

"This is the greatest democracy in the world. We want everyone to vote," McAuliffe told reporters.

   The Associated Press contributed to this report.