Rahm Emanuel failed to clinch another term as Chicago's mayor on Tuesday, setting the stage for an unprecedented runoff election against challenger Jesus "Chuy" Garcia.
Results showed the incumbent mayor with about 46 percent of the vote, short of the 50 percent-plus-one support he needs to win another term outright. Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, came in second place with 34 percent.
The results mean the two will face off April 7, a potentially embarrassing result for a high-profile politician who has already spent millions in his re-election bid. It is the first time since the city changed its election system in the 1990s that an incumbent mayor is forced into a runoff.
"We have come a long way and we have a little bit farther to go," Emanuel told supporters. "This is the first step in a real important journey for our city. To those who voted for me in this election, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart. For those who voted for someone else, I hope to earn your confidence and your support in the weeks to come."
A boisterous Garcia celebrated the outcome as a win over moneyed interests and other powerful forces supporting the incumbent, saying the results show "the people have spoken."
"Nobody thought we’d be here tonight," Garcia said. "They wrote us off; they said we didn’t have a chance. They said we didn’t have any money while they spent millions attacking us. Well, we’re still standing! We’re still running! And we’re gonna win!"
Emanuel, a former White House chief of staff, struggled to rise above 50 support throughout the campaign, even as he outpolled his four lesser-funded and known challengers. A late campaign blitz that blanketed the airwaves and a public appearance last week with President Barack Obama — a move seen as an effort to appeal to undecided African-American voters — couldn’t propel the 55-year-old mayor to victory.
The 55-year-old Democrat anchored his re-election bid on first-term efforts to better the lives of Chicagoans, highlighting pushes to expand access to early childhood education, raise the minimum wage and improve the city’s business climate and infrastructure. But he faced criticism for other major policies pursued during his first term, including his decision to close dozens of schools.
The school closures fueled a tumultuous relationship with the Chicago’s Teachers Union, which went on strike in 2012. The union, which also clashed with Emanuel over other changes to the city’s education system, endorsed Garcia after a brain cancer diagnosis sidelined its own president, Karen Lewis.
Political expert John P. Frendreis said while Garcia is “funny, he’s got a good speaking presence, he’s been around long enough, he’s got this colorful nickname so people kind of know him,” it was the support of the teachers that made the race competitive.
“It’s really the school controversy, the closure of schools, the continued opening of charter schools and then the ... battle with the CTU and Rahm that has generated any kind of heat in this and has made him even remotely vulnerable,” the political science professor at Loyola University in Chicago, said ahead of Tuesday’s race.
Emanuel's “bare-knuckles” approach to running the city, despite yielding results in some areas, also hurt his standing with some voters, analysts say.
“He’s reasonably good at his job,” Freindreis said. “Now where he has stumbled is that he is a tough guy and he is a bully and sometimes he is just too smart for his own good and so he’s rubbed people the wrong way because he’s not nice.”
Emanuel’s challengers criticized him throughout the campaign for not doing enough to help bring jobs, safer streets and other opportunities to all Chicagoans. Garcia told NBC Chicago he would, to hire a thousand more police officers, reduce class sizes and standardized tests and “invest in neighborhoods to attract manufacturing or industrial-creation jobs.” In addition to the backing from the teachers, he also gained headlines for winning the endorsement of the liberal political group MoveOn.org. The group applauded Tuesday's results as a "huge win for progressives and working families across Chicago."
Even if Emanuel succeeds in winning a second term in April, some observers say the education initiatives he pushed in his first four years could take a hit in Chicago and beyond.
“Over the next few years you could have mayors, some Democrats and some Republicans, in cities across the nation saying I’m going to pick the kids over the unions,” said Keith Koeneman, author of “First Son: The Biography of Richard M. Daly.”
Check back with NBCChicago.com for more on this developing story. For complete election night coverage, visit the Ward Room blog.