Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam has earned a promotion from Virginia voters, keeping the governor’s mansion in Democratic hands for the fourth time in the last five election cycles with a decisive victory that defied pundit predictions that race would come down to the wire.
Northam will now succeed his one-time running mate, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, after winning over Republican Ed Gillespie by a 54 percent to 45 percent margin. Libertarian Cliff Hyra managed just over 1 percent of the vote.
The Democrat’s win was largely powered by the Northern Virginia suburbs, including Prince William County, where he picked up about 61 percent of the vote to Gillespie’s 38 percent. Northam was similarly strong in Manassas, where earned nearly 57 percent to the Republican’s roughly 42 percent, and Manassas Park, where Northam won 64 percent to 35 percent over Gillespie.
“I’ve been in Richmond for 10 years; I know how to get things done,” Northam said in an interview before the election.
While the polls tightened as Election Day neared, Northam held a small, but steady lead in the race since he bested former Congressman Tom Perriello in a June primary. The lieutenant governor, a pediatric neurologist and former Army doctor, also managed to out-raise Gillespie by nearly $9 million in the pricey contest, a closely watched election broadly seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s performance in office.
“Tonight the people of Virginia led the way and turned out to support candidates who represent the very best of who we are,” Susan Swecker, chair of the state’s Democratic Party, wrote in a statement. “It is here in Virginia that we sent a powerful message to the nation that bigotry, racism and lies will never defeat love, fairness and truth.”
Gillespie, a former lobbyist and adviser to President George W. Bush, largely worked to avoid Trump during the campaign — Trump even tweeted after the race was called for Northam that “Ed Gillespie worked hard, but did not embrace me or what I stand for.”
But Gillespie did draw national headlines by mirroring some of the president’s rhetoric on immigration and Confederate monuments in a series of television ads, a pivot many credited to Gillespie’s near-loss to Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and Trump’s Virginia campaign chair, in the Republican primary.
While Gillespie said in his concession speech in Richmond that he wishes Northam “nothing but the best success as our 73rd governor” and offered his help “in making our commonwealth better,” Stewart struck a different tone in the wake of the results.
He called Gillespie’s defeat a “humiliating rejection of the failed Bush wing of the Republican Party” in a statement, and predicted that “Virginians will learn from tonight” in the 2018 midterms — Stewart is currently the only Republican who’s announced a run against U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., next year.
"Ed Gillespie refused to stand with the grassroots of the party and refused to fight ultra-left wing Democrats,” Stewart wrote. “This is a complete rejection of the moderate Bush wing of the Republican Party. It's time they pack their bags and go home and leave the running of the Republican Party to those of us who support the president's agenda and who will actually fight for the Republican Party's strong platform.”
On the other side of things, Northam worked to channel Democratic anger at Trump into enthusiasm at the polls, though he did pivot to the center as the race reached its closing weeks (angering some Democrats).
But he also likely benefited from enthusiasm in the state’s races for the House of Delegates, as political scientists expect that a “bottom-up” effect helped Northam after Democrats contested more seats in the chamber this year than they have for decades. The party stands on the brink of winning back a majority in the House, even though Republicans controlled it by a 66-34 majority headed into Election Day.
“To me, one of most powerful Trump effects is the large number of people who want to run for office on the Democratic side,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington.
Democrats managed to win the other statewide races as well; Justin Fairfax prevailed over Republican Jill Vogel by 53 percent to 47 percent, while Attorney General Mark Herring won re-election by the same margin over Republican John Adams.