Chicago (CNN) -- Rahm Emanuel, the former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, won the Chicago mayoral election over five other challengers Tuesday, topping the 50% threshold to avoid a runoff vote, CNN projects.
With almost 75% of the vote counted, Emanuel had almost 55% of the vote, far outdistancing his rivals.
Former Chicago School Board head Gery Chico was in second place with 25%, while City Clerk Miguel del Valle had 9% and former U.S. Sen. Carol Moseley Braun had more than 8%. The other two candidates both had less than 2%.
Speaking to supporters Tuesday night, a buoyant Emanuel praised outgoing Mayor Richard M. Daley, saying it would be "a tough act to follow," then spoke to problems facing the nation's third-largest city, which is dealing with an unexpected $654 million city deficit, possible reforms to the city's pension system and rising crime.
"What makes this victory most gratifying is that it was built on votes from every corner of this city," he said, touching on an overall theme of unity. "It's easy to find differences, but we can never allow them to become divisions."
Saying his administration will be dependent "on the plural pronoun, 'we,'" Emanuel said, "We know that we face serious new challenges, and overcoming them will not be easy."
Emanuel also said he had spoken earlier in the evening to Obama, who extended his congratulations.
During his campaign, Emanuel proposed a series of tax cuts, as well as increasing levies for luxury services, drawing the ire of some of his opponents, and he alluded to them again Tuesday night, when he said he would work toward a balanced budget "and a playing field that is fair."
Tuesday's vote was a nonpartisan election, though the city is heavily Democratic, and the top job has long been so associated with the Daley family. Richard M. Daley has been mayor since 1989, and his father, Richard J. Daley, held the post from 1955 to his death in 1976, making them the two longest-serving mayors in the city's history.
Emanuel, 51, previously served three terms as a congressman, was a key aide to President Bill Clinton and worked as Obama's chief of staff.
He assembled a well-organized campaign operation, canvassing the city to deliver a series of high-profile campaign speeches as well as making 357 informal stops to meet voters -- 229 at various community locations, such as schools, grocery stories and churches and 110 at subway stations.
Emanuel also hit the airwaves with a series of ads, buoyed by a large war chest, that touted his record and connections with Obama and Clinton while attacking his opponents.
For much of the campaign, Emanuel fought off an accusation that he was not a legal resident of Chicago and therefore could not run. The accusation stemmed from the renting of his house when he joined Obama's White House in 2009.
Emanuel maintained he never gave up his residency and defended himself at an election board hearing in December, which lasted almost 12 hours, even listing what possessions he had kept in the home: his wife's wedding dress, the family china, photo albums, a bed, a piano and a stereo, and was asked specifically where they were stored: in a storage area in the basement.
After a series of conflicting rulings the state Supreme Court ruled unanimously Emanuel's name should be on the ballot.
His opponents also accused Emanuel of being a Washington insider who avoided answering questions about some of his controversial moves.
"He is a pathological evader of the truth," Chico said Monday.
For his part, Emanuel seemed to try to stay above the fray as the front-runner.
"They can say whatever they want," he said Monday. "It doesn't matter what anybody says or what they say about me because if we don't turn this city around it is going to be harder for their kids. That has been my focus from day one."
Emanuel, well-known for his colorful personality and past demonstrations of anger, stayed low-key throughout the campaign. He exploited the popularity in Chicago of the presidents he served, having Clinton come to town and stand next to him at a high-profile event last month, and running television and radio ads using some of Obama's laudatory words during an event when Emanuel confirmed his resignation.
Emanuel also used questions regarding statements from his opponents to tout some of the achievements he helped usher in while working in the White House: putting more police officers on the street, gun measures, the Wall Street reform bill and health care reform.