Virginia lieutenant governor claims victory in Democratic primary

RICHMOND, Va., June 13 (Reuters) - Virginia's lieutenant governor claimed victory on Tuesday in the state's Democratic gubernatorial primary while two Republican contenders battled for their party's nomination in a November general election seen as a bellwether for next year's mid-term congressional races.

With more than 80 percent of the vote counted, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam bested former Congressman Tom Perriello, 55 percent to 45 percent, according to unofficial returns posted online by the Virginia Department of Elections.

Northam will face the winner of Tuesday's Republican primary in the general election race to succeed incumbent Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe, who is barred by term limits from running again.

The gubernatorial race in Virginia, the only state other than New Jersey electing a new governor this year, is seen as an key test of President Donald Trump's popularity ahead of the 2018 mid-term elections for the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

Northam sought to stoke Democrats' anger toward Trump, calling the president a "narcissistic maniac" in statewide ads.

"Tonight, we're one step closer to building a Virginia that works for everyone - no matter who you are, no matter where you're from," Northam said in a Twitter post hours after polls closed.

In the three-way Republican primary contest, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie held a narrow lead over Corey Stewart, a Prince William County official. Gillespie drew 43.47 percent of the vote compared with 43.01 percent for Stewart with almost 90 percent of precincts reporting.

The governor's race in Virginia, a swing state where a recent Washington Post and George Mason University poll showed 59 percent of voters disapprove of Trump's performance, is shaping up as a pivotal battleground with national implications.

"Virginia will be more hotly contested than ever," said Stephen Farnsworth, a political analyst at the University of Mary Washington.

"All the national money and national attention will be coming this way," he said. "Republicans want to claim that the Trump movement is doing well and the Democrats want to claim it is not."

Northam was backed by every statewide Democratic officeholder, while Perriello drew the support of Democratic progressives, including U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Gillespie was endorsed by a raft of state and national Republican leaders. On the campaign trail, he largely avoided talking about Trump, who has not weighed in on the race.

Republican strength has eroded in recent Virginia elections, with Democrats now holding all statewide offices. Virginia, once a Republican bulwark in presidential polls, has gone Democratic in three straight elections.