Democrats maintained their hold on the Governor’s office in Virginia Tuesday night, as the sitting Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam scored a decisive victory over Republican Ed Gillespie in a battle of classic establishment candidates.
With 97% of precincts reporting, Northam had won 53% of the vote to 45% for Gillespie. The race was called well before many of the precincts most favorable to Northam – in the DC suburbs of northern Virginia – had even been counted.
Even though Northam was the favorite in this race – and ahead in the polls – from the start, this nevertheless represents the first cause for celebration among Democrats since they suffered an inglorious defeat at the hands of Donald Trump one year ago.
Virginia was the lone southern state where Trump was defeated, losing to Hillary Clinton by five points, and he remains unpopular according to polls, particularly in the populous northern part of the state replete with employees of the federal government. Surprisingly high turnout amidst a steady rain throughout the day in northern Virginia suggests Democrats were heavily invested in either voting for Northam or more likely, against Trump.
As Republicans suffer their first defeat since Trump’s election, various Monday morning quarterbacks will likely opine that Gillespie failed to distance himself enough from the president to satisfy moderates, while others are likely to assert the opposite – that the GOP candidate failed to motivate his [party’s base by aligning himself sufficiently with Trump. In the end, it seems clear that Northam was the beneficiary and Gillespie the victim of the president’s general lack of popularity in the Old Dominion.
Because this was an off-year election, and the only seriously contested race on the national slate, the results will be magnified. But Northam had always been a heavy favorite. He built a commanding lead over the summer and early fall. His poll numbers appeared to erode in the waning days of the race and caused worry in Democrat circles, but the concern turned out to be unfounded.
While neither candidate represented the core ideological base of their respective parties, the race turned nasty over the last two weeks, with allied groups from both sides airing provocative ads that stirred outrage among their opponents.
Northam, who will succeed Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe as Governor, is a soft-spoken doctor, Army veteran and the current Lieutenant Governor who worked his way up the party ladder.
Gillespie, a former head of the Republican National Committee, advisor to George W. Bush and high-paid lobbyist, suffered his second statewide defeat in three years. He lost narrowly to incumbent Democrat Mark Warner in the U.S. Senate race in 2014.