- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Lt. Gov Ralph Northam won an easier-than-expected victory Tuesday in Virginia’s Democratic primary for governor, while Ed Gillespie had a much tougher race on the Republican side, though he took a narrow win in a race that showed President Trump is still a potent political force.

Mr. Gillespie had the backing of all the state’s high-profile Republicans and had a major cash advantage. His chief opponent, Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart, had his conservative stances and his ties to Mr. Trump.

It took more than three hours after the polls closed at 7 p.m. for news outlets to call the race, and Mr. Stewart was not conceding early Wednesday.

With only two of the state’s 2,561 precincts reporting just before midnight, albeit with absentee and provisional ballots still outstanding, Mr. Gillespie led by about 4,200 votes — a margin of 44 percent to 43 percent. State Sen. Frank W. Wagner took the remaining votes.

Even though he held on to a lead that was dwindled in polls during the closing days, Mr. Gillespie enters the general election wounded, having failed to crack 50 percent in a race he was expected to dominate.

“I appreciate all the hard work of the thousands of Virginians across our Commonwealth who helped us win this primary, and I accept the Republican Party of Virginia’s nomination for governor of the great Commonwealth of Virginia,” Mr. Gillespie said. “I can’t wait to lead a unified ticket to victory in November and wage a campaign that makes us all proud!”

Mr. Stewart, though, signaled he was not ready to concede and rally behind Mr. Gillespie, telling reporters that the final numbers weren’t in, and telling supporters that wasn’t a believer in “unity.”

His campaign blasted out a press released notifying reporters he would be available for interviews throughout the day Wednesday.

Mr. Northam’s victory, meanwhile, is good news for the Democratic establishment, which helped the lieutenant governor beat back an insurgent challenge by former one-term U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello.

With all precincts reporting on the Democratic side, Mr. Northam won by 56 percent to 44 percent over Mr. Perriello, who had the support of Sen. Bernard Sanders and the most liberal activists from the national Democratic Party.

But many Democrats voted pragmatically, wanting to choose someone with the most time in state government.

“He is experienced,” Sandra Welch, 71, said of Mr. Northam as she voted in Alexandria. “He knows legislators in Richmond so he already has an advantage in being able to get some legislation on the books.”

Mr. Perriello congratulated Mr. Northam in a phone call before taking the stage at his election night party, vowing to support his rival in the November election.

He and his supporters claimed a moral victory in the loss, saying they forced Mr. Northam to run to the left.

“We have changed the conversation here in Virginia and lifted the voices of those who have been left out of the political conservation for too long,” Mr. Perriello said at a party in Falls Church. “I don’t know about you, but I am inspired to keep fighting tonight.”

At his victory party in Arlington, Mr. Northam gave a fiery speech Tuesday night, wooing Perriello supporters and saying Democrats would retake the state House of Delegates in November.

“It is time for us to get back on offense and stop playing so much defense,” he said.

Mr. Perriello became the latest Bern victim, notching another loss for the senator from Vermont who electrified Democratic voters last year but who has struggled to turn his movement into a winning electoral campaign.

Republicans, meanwhile, were given a choice between the old GOP era in Mr. Gillespie, who was a counselor to President George W. Bush, and the new GOP in Mr. Stewart, who was pushing immigration crackdowns well before Mr. Trump and had been chairman of the Trump campaign in Virginia.

Mr. Gillespie tried to steer clear of getting too bogged down in Trump-related controversies in Washington, running a more traditional Republican campaign that focused on his desire to slash taxes, pursue conservative pro-growth policies and strengthen ethics laws.

Mr. Stewart sprinted toward Mr. Trump, making immigration a centerpiece of his campaign, and accused Mr. Gillespie of running away from the president.

Voters also voted for nominees in the races for the state legislature and lieutenant governor.

In the primary for lieutenant governor, a post that often serves as a steppingstone to the governorship, Democrats chose Northern Virginia lawyer Justin Fairfax over retired prosecutor Gene Rossi and former lobbyist Susan Platt.

On the Republican side, state Sen. Jill Vogel eked out a narrow win over state Sen. Bryce Reeves.

There was no major-party primary for the commonwealth’s other major statewide elected office, the attorney general post. Incumbent Democrat Mark Herring and Republican lawyer John Adams ran unopposed.

At the polls Tuesday, Mr. Gillespie’s backers said they hoped he could deliver a victory to a state Republican Party that has been on a losing streak.

“I think he is fiscally responsible,” Sarah Revers, 52, said on her way out a polling place in Fairfax County. “I think he stands for the values that Virginians want at this point.”

Others were less enthused, including Stewart supporters who called Mr. Gillespie a “RINO,” or Republican in Name Only, and said he “might as well be a Democrat.”

That lack of enthusiasm may have affected turnout.

Democrats appeared to have set a record with more than 500,000 votes cast, compared with about 350,000 in the Republican contest.

Total turnout was slightly more than 150,000 in the 2013 Democratic governor’s primary and nearly 320,000 the 2009 primary.

Mr. Trump’s shadow hung over both primaries, with Democratic voters in Alexandria saying they were physically repulsed by Mr. Trump and applauding Mr. Northam for labeling him a “narcissistic maniac” in one of his closing campaign ads.

“I am not going to overanalyze that statement, but I like it,” said 80-year-old Jim Hensen, a retired Air Force master sergeant who backed Mr. Northam.

Harry, another voter who declined to give his last name, said he voted for Mr. Northam because of that ad. “I believe that [Mr. Trump] probably has some sort of mental illness,” he said.

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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