(Reuters) - Virginians voted on Tuesday in a closely watched election for governor that has put the Republicans’ conservative Tea Party wing on the defensive and drawn record outside money.
Surveys have shown Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe, a major party fundraiser and close friend of former President Bill Clinton, ahead of Republican Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, a Tea Party favorite.
With New Jersey Republican Governor Chris Christie expected to cruise to re-election on Tuesday, Virginia has become a battleground ahead of mid-term congressional elections next year and presidential elections in 2016.
Virginia’s polls close at 7 p.m. EST (0000 GMT).
National Democratic figures have attempted to make the vote a referendum on the Tea Party.
Clinton and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have campaigned for McAuliffe. President Barack Obama also has appealed to Democrats, animating Virginia Republicans who oppose his signature healthcare law.
“The president is lying and McAuliffe is part of it,” said Mike Hicks, a resident of Ashland, who said he voted for Cuccinelli.
Cuccinelli has received support from such conservative Republican figures as Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and Senators Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas.
A win by McAuliffe, a former head of the Democratic National Committee, would mark the first time in nine elections that the party that controls the White House has taken the Virginia governor’s office.
Cuccinelli, a strong opponent of abortion and same-sex marriage, has trailed badly among women and independent voters.
Desiree Judge, 56, standing outside the City Hall voting site in Alexandria, said she had voted a straight Democratic ticket for the first time in decades because the Republicans were on a “moral bandwagon.”
“Maybe that’s the way you run a church, but it’s not the way you run a country,” she said.
McAuliffe, 56, and Cuccinelli, 45, cast ballots during the morning and then visited campaign offices through the state.
Virginia, which relies more than most states on federal paychecks and contracts, was hit hard by the government shutdown last month. Most Americans have blamed the Republicans and especially the Tea Party wing for the shutdown.
McAuliffe, who has never held elected office, favors the federal healthcare law, offshore oil drilling and an expansion of preschool programs for poor children. He supports gay marriage, now barred by the state constitution.
McAuliffe has raised about $34 million to Cuccinelli’s $20 million, according to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, which tracks political money in the state.
About 70 percent of the money raised has come from outside the state, which is by far the highest percentage for any U.S. gubernatorial race in history, according to the nonpartisan National Institute on Money In State Politics, in Helena, Montana.
Editing by Daniel Trotta, Maureen Bavdek and Leslie Adler