From a general seven-point lead in the polls to a victory of barely two and a half points, Governor-elect Terry McAuliffe’s victory in Virginia last night did turn out to be ragingly competitive one — but it was, nonetheless, a victory.

Democrat Terry McAuliffe won the Virginia governor’s race on Tuesday, in a surprisingly close victory over Republican rival Ken Cuccinelli — who was heavily outspent and trailed in the polls for much of the race.

With nearly all precincts reporting, McAuliffe was ahead with just 48 percent of the vote, to Cuccinelli’s 45 percent. Though McAuliffe previously held a double-digit lead, exit polls showed voters opposed to the federal health care law overwhelmingly backed Cuccinelli, helping him narrow the gap on Tuesday.

“Despite being outspent by an unprecedented $15 million, this race came down to the wire because of ObamaCare,” Cuccinelli said in his concession speech. “That message will go out to the entire country tonight.”

What factors might have succeeded in scooting Cuccinelli over the line at the last, and how whatever those might have been can apply to upcoming statewide and Congressional races, is going to be a subject of intense debate among Republicans; Republicans are pointing to the government shutdown (Virginia is chock-full of bureaucrats and government contractors who were affected by the furloughs), a Libertarian spoiler (Sarvis managed to pull out a whopping seven percent of the vote, and third-party candidates don’t normally cotton on so significantly in VA), and the relative abandonment by GOP donors and outside groups. The tea party versus establishment theme will inevitably be a big one, and behind the scenes, too, there will be (and should be) talks about Cuccinelli’s lackluster fundraising and campaign operations, the tone of his rhetoric, and the fact that he held on to his day job throughout the race.

However, I’m already seeing pundits of a progressive ilk glibly framing McAuliffe’s win as a resoundingly successful endorsement of ObamaCare, or something — but I’m not convinced of that at all. If anything, ObamaCare was what almost plucked this race out of McAuliffe’s outstretched hands after several previous months of solid polling and, as Cuccinelli mentioned, a $15 million advantage. Indeed, if the shutdown hadn’t taken primacy for so much of October and media stories about the ObamaCare disaster had taken hold a little sooner, the effect may have been even more pronounced. Via Politico:

When President Barack Obama crossed the Potomac for McAuliffe on Sunday, he glaringly avoided even mentioning his signature accomplishment — trying instead to link Cuccinelli with the federal government shutdown.

Exit polls show a majority of voters — 53 percent — opposed the law. Among them, 81 percent voted for Cuccinelli and 8 percent voted for Libertarian candidate Robert Sarvis. McAuliffe won overwhelmingly among the 46 percent who support the health care overhaul.

Cuccinelli actually won independents by 9 percentage points, 47 percent to 38 percent, according to exit polls conducted for a group of media organizations. They made up about one-third of the electorate.

“Obamacare helped close the gap,” said Richmond-based strategist Chris Jankowski, the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee.

Sean Trende has more:

We should also observe that more voters opposed Obamacare than supported it; 41 percent strongly opposed it while only 27 percent strongly supported it. The president sports a 46 percent approval rating in the state; 53 percent disapprove. The blame for the shutdown was only narrowly apportioned to the GOP: 48 percent to 45 percent. Fifty-two percent said that government does too much.

In other words, even in a pretty favorable demographic environment for Democrats, the GOP’s message had some resonance. Nevertheless, this is a plus for Democrats, suggesting that they might be able to come reasonably close to replicating the Obama electorates.

And Jonah Goldberg at NRO goes further:

So far on CNN and MSNBC the pre-mortem is all about the shortcomings of the tea parties, the “war on women,” etc. (though the huge power of the Clinton brand seems to have fallen out of the conversation for the moment). I’m not saying those are completely unworthy subjects. But there’s a noticeable lack of discussion about how things got close at the end and why. It seems to me the PR disaster of Obamacare and Cuccinelli’s exploitation of it had to play a significant role in that. … And so far tonight, Obamacare is not looking like much of an asset for Democrats.

Indeed, not. (In that same vein, however, I would also caution against entirely focusing on the potential Republican positives to be gained from ObamaCare’s unpopularity, and suggest that there’s still a lot for Republicans to hash out about this deeply negative, deeply flawed race for future Republican campaign prescriptions.)

Anyhow. Now we Virginians are in for the treat of watching McAuliffe turn his lifetime skills of little more than boozy-schmoozy fundraising hackery into actual policy and statesmanship. “Thomas Jefferson devoted much of his first inaugural address to bridging partisan divides,” he said in his victory address last night, and his administration will be a model of “pragmatic leadership” and “bipartisan cooperation.” He’s going to need it, especially if his first big goal is to get Virginia to pass ObamaCare’s Medicaid expansion, because the House of Delegates maintained a robust supermajority Republican advantage in last night’s election. Via NRO, ugh:

Update: Medicaid, not Medicare — typo fixed!