NEW YORK, United States – Voters in New York have picked Bill de Blasio to be the city's first Democratic mayor in a generation, in one of a handful of elections seen as having considerable national importance.
New Jersey's Republican Governor Chris Christie on Tuesday handily defeated his Democrat challenger, earning a second four-year term in a race some pundits said would serve as a platform for a future presidential bid.
Another key race, for the governorship of the southern state of Virginia, turned out to be be a nail-biter, with media reports declaring businessman Terry McAuliffe victorious by the narrowest of margins.
President Barack Obama warned against making early election calls.
"Never predict elections," he said. "That's a losing proposition."
That word of caution proved wise in Virginia, where McAuliffe, a Democrat, had been predicted to make short work of his Republican opponent, State Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, in a race that turned out to be far tighter than originally predicted.
Early election results had shown McAuliffe and Cuccinelli tied at 47 per cent each shortly after polls closed.
Tuesday's vote is the first major round of balloting in the United States since Obama won a second term in the White House last year.
Christie cruised to a landslide victory on a wave of popularity, but at odds with his party at the national level.
He is increasingly seen as a contender to win the Republican nomination for the White House in 2016 given his pragmatism, charisma and ability to command cross-party support.
Meanwhile, the race in the Big Apple – in which de Blasio long had been tipped as the heavy favorite to replace billionaire Michael Bloomberg – was one of several seen as a barometer of public opinion ahead of congressional elections in 2014.
De Blasio, 52, promises a new style in a city transformed by 12 years of tough love under Bloomberg, who is stepping down after a record three terms.
He left Republican rival Joe Lhota trailing in the dust in the biggest city in the United States by tapping into the worries of the economically vulnerable middle class.
The city of 8.3 million has six times as many Democratic voters as Republicans, yet a win for de Blasio would make him the first Democrat elected mayor since 1989.
"I think the people of this city know that so many New Yorkers are struggling just to make ends meet," he said after voting with wife Chirlane in his Brooklyn neighborhood, accompanied by their teenage children Chiara and Dante.
"We need to make very serious progressive change and move away from Bloomberg-era policies and I'm ready to do it and I need the support of New Yorkers to get it done."
De Blasio has focused on the yawning gulf between rich and poor in a city with more than 440,000 millionaires but where 21 per cent live in poverty on $30,944 a year for a family of four.
He promises to raise taxes to fund universal pre-kindergarten education and after-school programs, and build 200,000 affordable housing units.
De Blasio's family has featured prominently in his campaign, an effort to connect to a diverse New York where 33.3 per cent are white, 25.5 per cent black, 28.6 per cent Hispanic and 12.7 per cent Asian.
Lhota had been upbeat Tuesday despite trailing badly in the polls.
"Doing well, doing well. Very optimistic about today," he said after voting in upmarket Brooklyn Heights.
He served as deputy mayor under Rudy Giuliani and is a respected former chairman of the city's Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Before being public advocate, de Blasio was on the city council for eight years, a housing official under President Bill Clinton and managed Hillary Clinton's New York Senate race in 2000.
But there were questions about whether he has the experience to lead a city hall staff of 300,000 and a budget of $72 billion.
There are also concerns that New York politics will again fall victim to cronyism and election-cycles after Bloomberg, whose vast wealth left him beholden to no one, steps down. One voter, Adriana, 63, who works for a charity, said she cast her ballot for de Blasio as a life-long Democrat but with some reservations.
"I don't know whether he is going to embrace the arts. I don't know whether he will have the pull at City Hall the mayor had. Yes, I am a little concerned, but he is better than the alternative," she said.
Bloomberg campaigned for a change in New York's term limits law and was allowed to stand for and win a third four-year mandate.
He will go down as one of New York's most transformative mayors but leaves behind an electorate divided by his legacy.
There has been a continued reduction in violent crime and his aggressive public health policies, such as banning smoking in bars and restaurants, have been copied in many cities.
Virginia's changing demographics meanwhile – with a rural-suburban split and significant military and government employee populations – make it a litmus test for the political mood ahead of 2016.
If Christie wins and Cuccinelli loses, it is likely to solidify thinking that Republicans would be better served with ditching deeply ideological candidates.
"They've got to stop with the Tea Party message because it just doesn't resonate," a party supporter and federal contractor who identified himself as Kellen said after voting in Arlington, Virginia. AFP