Nearly complete results Monday of Sunday's election for the governorship of the prosperous Emilia-Romagna region had his League party candidate winning only 43.7 % support to the 51.4% garnered by the incumbent governor from the center-left Democrats.
The Democrats are the junior coalition partner in a wobbly national coalition government led by Premier Giuseppe Conte. Humiliated in that regional vote was the populist 5-Star Movement, which is Conte's main coalition partner. The 5-Stars, the largest party in Italy's national Parliament, tanked at some 3.5% of the vote.
Their poor showing, the latest slump in fortunes since their triumph in the 2018 national election, could likely worsen the infighting in the 5-Stars and weaken their clout with Conte, who has vowed to stay in power till the next parliamentary election is due in 2023.
It didn't help coalition goodwill that while the center-right stuck together in backing one candidate for governor in Emilia-Romagna, the 5-Stars refused to ally with the Democrats in that region, siphoning away potential voters for the left.
In southern Calabria, the only other Italian region voting Sunday, a center-right candidate triumphed in a runway victory on a ticket backed by Salvini's anti-migrant League party, the far-right Brothers of Italy party and the conservatives of former three-time Premier Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia party.
In Calabria, with most votes counted, Jole Santelli's center-right ticket had 55% support to 30% for the Democratic candidate. The 5-Stars were polling at only 7.3%. The usually exuberant Salvini sounded a bit humbled Monday but hardly stalled in his quest to return his party to national government and become Italy's next leader. He pledged to rebound in six more regional elections to be held in the coming months.
League candidates or those backed by them have triumphed in eight of nine regional contests, including some in which they wrested control from the center-left. “Eight out of nine, it could be worse,'' Salvini told a news conference. ”I'm a perfectionist, I'd have preferred" nine. Still, he shrugged off the disappointment in Emilia-Romagna.
“We have broad shoulders, we'll forge on,” Salvini promised, declaring he had waged a “splendid battle” in Emilia Romagna, where the left has dominated for 70 years, earning the region the nickname “the Red Belt.”
Gov. Stefano Bonaccini, a Democrat, had led a region where public health care, schools and other social services are generally considered to be excellently run. "Good government wins,'' tweeted former Democratic Premier Paolo Gentiloni, who is now a European Union commissioner.
Determined that Emilia-Romagna would be key to a return to national power, Salvini had campaigned incessantly in there, practically eclipsing his own candidate's visibility. The loser, Lucia Borgonzoni, was a little-known League politician.
Last summer, Salvini abruptly pulled his party out of Conte's first government, where the League had served as junior coalition partner with the 5-Stars. He had banked the maneuver would trigger an early election that would catapult him into the premiership. Instead, Conte returned to power after his government collapsed by forging a deal between the 5-Stars and their arch-rival, the Democrats.
Berlusconi, whose own political fortunes had been steadily slumping, particularly relished the victory in Calabria, since the winner Santelli came from the Forza Italia fold. Berlusconi has disparaged the populist 5-Stars as dangerous for democracy and he gloated over their terrible showing Sunday in both regions.
The 5-Stars made a “pitiful” showing, Berlusconi said, claiming they are "condemned to irrelevance” on the national scene.