MONTERREY, Mexico (Reuters) - A blunt, outspoken rancher with a penchant for cowboy hats dealt a blow to the Mexican government on Sunday, inflicting a heavy defeat on the ruling party to become the first independent candidate to win a state governorship in modern Mexico.
Jaime Rodriguez, a former member of President Enrique Pena Nieto's Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI), won the powerful northern state of Nuevo Leon after a campaign that capitalized on widespread disaffection with the established parties.
Known as "El Bronco" (the gruff one), Rodriguez came from the back of the field to win the six-year term, beating out the PRI and the centre-right National Action Party (PAN), which have traditionally run the state centred on the city of Monterrey.
"It's great that we're going to give the two parties that were governing a six-year vacation," Rodriguez, a former PRI mayor who left the party last year, told supporters. "Nuevo Leon will be the start of this second Mexican revolution."
With nearly three quarters of polling station returns in, Rodriguez had won 49.4 percent of the vote, more than the PRI and PAN candidates combined, preliminary results showed. In the last election in 2009, the PRI took the state comfortably.
Nuevo Leon was one of nine state governorships up for grabs in mid-term elections on Sunday that were the first national electoral test for Pena Nieto since he took office in December 2012 promising a safer, more prosperous and just Mexico.
Instead, the government became mired in allegations of corruption, economic growth has been slow and Mexico's image abroad has been battered by outbreaks of violence, particularly the abduction and apparent massacre of 43 students in September.
Rodriguez, whose combative style has endeared him to voters but caused friction with the established parties, will have to govern with a state congress dominated by PAN and PRI deputies.
Nuevo Leon is one of the main engines of the Mexican economy, home to many of its most successful companies.
Only once had the PRI surrendered the state, to the PAN, in the many years it has dominated Mexican politics. The PRI ruled Mexico from 1929 to 2000, returning to power with Pena Nieto after a 12 year hiatus when the PAN was in charge.
Rodriguez won thanks to a change in Mexican electoral law that now allows independent candidates to run for high office.
Additional reporting by David Alire Garcia; Writing by Dave Graham; Editing by Andrew Heavens