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.
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, gestures as his wife, Pam, listens during a news conference in the Governors Mansion at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. Northam is under fire for a racial photo that appeared in his college yearbook. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam pauses during a news conference in the Governor's Mansion in Richmond, Va., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. Resisting widespread calls for his resignation, Northam on Saturday vowed to remain in office after disavowing a racist photograph that appeared under his name in his 1984 medical school yearbook. (Bob Brown/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, left, accompanied by his wife, Pam, speaks during a news conference in the Governor's Mansion in Richmond, Va., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. Northam is under fire for a racial photo that appeared in his college yearbook. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam pauses during a news conference in the Governor's Mansion in Richmond, Va., on Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019. Northam is under fire for a racial photo that appeared in his college yearbook. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
ALEXANDRIA, VA - May 21: Democratic candidate for Governor of Virginia, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam takes part in a candidate forum put on by Americans for Responsible Solutions at the Hilton Alexandria Old Town on Sunday May 21, 2017 in Alexandria, VA. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Barack Obama campaigns in support of Virginia Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, Democratic candidate for governor, at a rally with supporters in Richmond, Virginia, U.S. October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Virginia Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, who is campaigning to be elected as the state's governor, and his wife Pam, cast their ballots at the East Ocean View Community Center in Norfolk, Virginia, U.S. November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Julia Rendleman
FAIRFAX, VA - APRIL 29: Tom Perriello, left, shakes hands with Ralph Northam at the start of the event. Virginia Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates, Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello held their first debate on Saturday, April 29, 2017 at Lanier Middle School in Fairfax, VA. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MARCH 08: Virginia Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam visits Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to visit with airport workers on Wednesday March 08, 2017 in Arlington, VA. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 25: Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, cheer on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa., on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, July 25, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Ralph Northam (R) is sworn in as Virginia's lieutenant governor by retired Judge Glen Tyler in Richmond, Virginia, January 11, 2014. The ceremony marks the first time in a quarter century that Democrats will hold all three of the state's top elective posts: governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. REUTERS/Mike Theiler (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
FALLS CHURCH, VA - OCTOBER 19: Hillary Rodham Clinton, center right in red, stands with the Democratic ticket as she endorses Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, far right, at a Women for Terry rallyon October, 19, 2013 in Falls Church, VA. Pictured from left, Sen Mark Herring, Sen. Ralph Northam, Clinton, and McAuliffe. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 25: Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, take a selfie on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa., on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, July 25, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 2:
Ralph Northam greets supporters in front of the venue as progressive and labor groups from across the Commonwealth host a forum for him and fellow candidate Tom Perriello to discuss Virginia's 2017 Governor's race on May, 02, 2017 in Arlington, VA.
(Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Virginia Democratic governor-elect Terry McAuliffe (R) celebrates with lieutenant governor-elect Ralph Northam (L) at their election night victory rally in Tyson's Corner, Virginia November 5, 2013. McAuliffe defeated Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli in today's governor's election in Virginia. REUTERS/Gary Cameron (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
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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.