Angela Merkel's rival in the German election has said he will try to win over voters by proposing tough terms for Britain in Brexit talks.
The conservatives' improbable come-from-behind triumph in heavily industrial North Rhine-Westphalia, long a bastion for the Social Democratic party and home to almost a quarter of Germany's voters, gave the chancellor a powerful gust of tailwind just four months before the federal election on September 24.
But surveys ahead of the vote show the centre-left party running neck-and-neck with Merkel's Christian Democratic Union, with some even placing the CDU ahead.
Yesterday's result could now pave the way for the state's first ever coalition between the CDU and the SPD under the 56-year-old Laschet.
Social Democrat governor Hannelore Kraft's coalition lost its majority as her junior governing partners, the Greens, took only 6.4%.
CDU General Secretary Peter Tauber crowed over the election results at a party gathering in Berlin, saying his party had "conquered the heart" of the SPD.
"It's a hard day for the SPD, a hard day for me personally", Schulz told supporters in Berlin. "I hail from the state where we just suffered a crushing election defeat".
The CDU unseated the SPD in North Rhine-Westphalia in May 2005, prompting a snap federal election.
But he urged the party to concentrate now on the national election September 24.
"One thing that is totally clear is that, before general elections on September 24, we'll have a long way to go".
Martin Schulz, leader of the Social Democratic Party (SPD), resorted to his comfort zone as former president of the European parliament when asked today about his plans to revive his faltering election campaign. Other parties trailed far behind the two leaders.More news: SC experts say GOP health care bill likely to affect you
The business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP), looking to re-enter the German parliament this fall, came in third in NRW, taking 12.6 percent of the vote, a significant increase compared to 2012.
With its sprawling industrial region and support from workers, NRW has been an SPD stronghold for decades - but that all could change by Sunday evening.
The populist Alternative for Germany (AfD) will also enter North Rhine-Westphalia's parliament for the first time, picking up 7.4 percent.
Mrs Kraft announced that she was stepping down as the Social Democrats' regional leader.
The projections mean the SDP-Green coalition is unlikely to hold a majority in the state legislature and puts the CDU in position to replace it.
The outcome was the latest indication that initial enthusiasm for the new SPD leader, Mr Martin Schulz, could be fizzling out.
She had urged voters to look at her government's economic record, noting that with 7.5% unemployment, the state fares worse than the national rate of 5.8%.
This is the second time in a week that that Merkel's conservative party has usurped the SPD.
The top candidate of the Christian Democratic Party, CDU, Armin Laschet, casts his ballot for the North Rhine-Westphalian state elections in Aachen, Germany, Sunday, May 14, 2017.
Merkel's conservatives sought to portray Kraft's government as slack on security, and also assailed what they said is regional authorities' poor handling of education and infrastructure projects.