Democrat Ralph Northam was elected governor of Virginia on Tuesday in a sweeping victory that defied the conventional wisdom of a tightening race.
The lieutenant governor’s victory joins Democrat Phil Murphy’s win in New Jersey’s gubernatorial race to hand Democrats new hope in the Donald Trump era.
After a bruising race against former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, Northam outran Hillary Clinton in a state she carried by 5 points while losing the presidency in November 2016. A series of late-campaign controversies hitting Northam had Republicans cautiously optimistic that Gillespie could close the gap and pull off an upset, but Democrats rode a wave of anti-Trump backlash and satisfaction with outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s administration.
“It was said that the eyes of the nation are now on the commonwealth,” Northam said in his victory speech. “Today, Virginians have answered and spoken. Virginians have told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry, and to end the politics that have torn this country apart.”
Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador, defeated Kim Guadagno, New Jersey’s lieutenant governor, to replace unpopular Republican Gov. Chris Christie. Murphy led the race from the start by double digits.
The pair of off-year governors races is traditionally read as a bellwether for the next year’s midterm elections, but this year the results — particularly in Virginia — are also likely to be read as referenda on the state of each party’s national well-being in the age of Trump.
Democrats had eyed the race nervously, as an opportunity to both demonstrate political momentum and help the party dig out from a historic low in terms of governorships. Democrats currently have just 15 compared to Republicans’ 34 (Alaska Gov. Bill Walker is an independent), so party officials had for months seen flipping the New Jersey seat and retaining Virginia’s as top priorities. Come January, they will hold 16.
“This was a vote for an inclusive Virginia,” said former Rep. Tom Perriello, who lost to Northam in the primary but went on to endorse him and help lead his party’s charge in the House of Delegates, where Democrats on Tuesday elected the first Latina members of the House of Delegates and a transgender candidate. “Gillespie went all-in on an identity politics agenda, and we rejected it.”
Near tears with excitement, Perriello sounded a bullish note on his party’s future.
“We’re seeing the Prop 187 of Virginia, and probably of America,” he said, referring to the famous California ballot proposition targeting illegal immigration that helped Republicans win in 1994 but has been credited with turning state voters against the Republican Party ever since.
Gillespie sought to strike a balance between engaging moderates with talk of jobs and taxes and firing up his base by running ads on illegal immigration and sanctuary cities — which don’t exist in Virginia — and cultural touchstones like Confederate monuments and NFL anthem protests. Gillespie did not initially home in on those subjects, but they became a bigger part of his campaign after he nearly lost the June Republican primary to Trump’s former Virginia campaign chairman.
Trump, who tweeted in support of Gillespie before the election, quickly turned on him after the race was called.
“Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for,” Trump tweeted, before referencing Republican special election wins earlier this year. “Don’t forget, Republicans won 4 out of 4 House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!”
Democratic turnout in Virginia’s primary skyrocketed from previous years’ levels. Party leaders including former President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden swooped into the state to back Northam in the final month.
“The initial goal was for Democrats to nationalize the race and make it about the president; our initial goal was to localize the race and make it about Virginia,” Virginia Republican Party chairman John Whitbeck said before Tuesday’s vote. “If we win, it will say that a mainstream conservative like Ed Gillespie can win in an era of uncertainty. What it says about the Democrats is they have a lot of soul-searching to do: I don’t think they know what their message is, their agenda is.”
Though Trump loomed over the race, Gillespie did not actually appear with him in Virginia — the first time in years a sitting president did not cross the Potomac River to campaign in the governor’s race. “Ralph Northam will allow crime to be rampant in Virginia. He’s weak on crime, weak on our GREAT VETS, Anti-Second Amendment and has been horrible on Virginia economy,” Trump tweeted during his Asia trip on Tuesday. Gillespie appeared multiple times with Vice President Mike Pence, who is more popular among conservatives and perceived as less likely to fire up Democrats who can’t stand the president.
In New Jersey, Murphy was heavily favored in large part because of the unpopularity of Christie. Guadagno, Christie’s deputy, tried tacking away from Christie, but the former presidential candidate’s abysmal 14 percent approval rating — according to a late October Suffolk poll — proved to be a serious drag on his hoped-for successor.
While Guadagno tried tarnishing Murphy’s image by painting him in ads as soft on illegal immigration, Murphy — a former Goldman Sachs executive and Democratic National Committee finance chairman — relied heavily on support from local and national-level Democrats to pad his comfortable margin.
In Virginia, Democrats also aimed to peel back the GOP advantage in the state legislature. The party hopes that Northam’s win, combined with continued down-ballot gains, will put Democrats in position to exert more influence over the next round of political map-drawing in Virginia at the end of this decade.
Democrats also won the closely watched mayoral races in Manchester, New Hampshire, and St. Petersburg, Florida.
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