- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Democrat Ralph Northam won the Virginia governor’s race Tuesday, easily outdistancing Republican nominee Ed Gillespie in a race that became a referendum on President Trump after a year in office.

With almost all precincts reporting, Mr. Northam held a lead of 53 percent to 45 percent. Cliff Hyra, a Libertarian candidate, had 1 percent of the vote.

Outgoing Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, said the results should send shivers through the Republican Party as it gears up for midterm elections next year.

“They ought to be terrified coming out of Virginia tonight when we sweep all three statewide elections,” Mr. McAulliffe told reporters at the Northam election night party as numbers trickled in.

Mr. Gillespie campaigned on an immigration crackdown and an across-the-board tax cut — issues that Republicans at the national level are pushing right now. But analysts said he struggled with a charisma gap, and Mr. Trump said the Republican nominee failed to energize his voters.

“Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for,” the president said via Twitter. “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!”

SEE ALSO: Corey Stewart: Ralph Northam win in Virginia not a rejection of Trump

Mr. Northam was showered with a thunderous applause and chants of “Ralph, Ralph, Ralph” at his election eve party at George Mason University in Fairfax.

“You know it was said that the eyes of the nation are now on the commonwealth,” said Mr. Northam, a former Army doctor and pediatrician. “Today Virginia has answered and spoken. Virginians have told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hate and bigotry and to end the politics that have torn this country apart.”

“I want to you to know in Virginia that it is going to take a doctor to heal our differences,” he said. “And I am here to let you know that the doctor is in, and this doctor will be on call for the next four years.”

The speech, though, got off to a rocky start after Mr. Northam was interrupted and briefly escorted off stage when protesters started shouting and waving “sanctuary for all” signs — apparently in response to the Democrat’s stated opposition to sanctuaries for illegal immigrants.

In his concession speech, Mr. Gillespie thanked his supporters in Richmond and informed them that he had called Mr. Northam to congratulate him and offer his assistance.

“I said throughout this campaign that Gov.-elect Northam is a good man and I appreciate his service to our country and our commonwealth, and I wish him nothing but the best success as our 73rd governor,” Mr. Gillespie said.

The race served as the latest confirmation of Virginia’s status as a blue state after decades of being among the most reliably Republican states in presidential elections.

Four out of the past five governor’s elections have now been won by Democrats. The state has gone blue in three straight presidential elections, and both U.S. senators have been Democrats since 2008.

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, who is up for re-election next year, told Democratic activists at Mr. Northam’s election night party that they had “taken one of the reddest states in the country and you have turned it into not just a battleground, not just purple — you have turned it into a blue state.”

Mr. McAuliffe, who was limited to one term under Virginia’s strict governorship rules, won his race by less than 3 percentage points in 2013, so Mr. Northam’s win represents significant growth for Democrats.

Justin Fairfax, a Democrat, won the lieutenant governor’s race, and Mark Herring, another Democrat, won re-election as attorney general, giving Democrats a clean sweep of the state’s top offices.

Republicans were hoping to maintain control of the state House of Delegates, where all 100 seats were up for election, but Democrats scored major gains, including expanding their numbers in Northern Virginia.

In one stunning victory, Democrat Danica Roem will become the first openly transgender member of the legislature. She won her race in Prince William County against longtime Republican Delegate Robert Marshall, one of the chamber’s most conservative lawmakers who introduced a “bathroom bill” modeled on the North Carolina law on sex-segregated facilities.

Mr. Northam held a comfortable lead in polling for most of the campaign, but the governor’s race started to tighten late — particularly when Mr. Gillespie began to adopt some of Mr. Trump’s messaging on immigration.

Mr. Gillespie said he would crack down on so-called sanctuary cities that refuse to cooperate with federal immigration authorities, and attacked Mr. Northam for casting a tie-breaking vote against a crackdown bill in the state Senate.

Mr. Gillespie, who had said there were no sanctuaries in Virginia, still began running ads accusing Mr. Northam’s sanctuary vote of aiding the violent MS-13 criminal gang, whose members are chiefly Hispanic and often tied to illegal immigration.

Democrats accused the Republican of adopting Mr. Trump’s divisive rhetoric, and immigrant rights groups sounded the alarm.

The Latino Victory Fund replied with a vicious ad showing a pickup truck with a Gillespie bumper sticker and a Confederate flag stalking minority children through a neighborhood.

The group pulled the ad after a terrorist attack in New York last month in which a man who reportedly pledged allegiance to the Islamic State used a rented truck to run down people on a bike path.

But the ad drew widespread condemnation, left Mr. Northam on the defensive and, according to conservative leaders in Virginia, helped rally Trump voters to Mr. Gillespie’s banner.

Some conservatives speculated that Mr. Gillespie could have won his race had he embraced Mr. Trump early, given that most of the energy in the Republican Party is among pro-Trump voters.

Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and the man who almost topped Mr. Gillespie in the Republican primary, said Mr. Gillespie should have campaigned with the president.

“Ed rejected Trump,” Mr. Stewart said. “Ed distanced himself from Trump. He wouldn’t campaign with him. In the primary and general, he would not even retweet President Trump’s endorsement of him.”

He said the proof was in the fact that Mr. Gillespie ran behind the Republican candidates for lieutenant governor and attorney general.

As it was, exit polling suggested Mr. Trump to be a drag. About half of voters said their vote was a message to the president, and by a 2-1 margin it was in opposition to Mr. Trump.

“I think he doesn’t know what the truth is and he diverts attention from what’s really important,” Gwen Blockis, a 70-year-old retired computer analyst, said as she voted. “He comes up with all these things to divert attention away from him and his stories. I don’t even think he thinks about what he says.”

Mr. Trump never campaigned with Mr. Gillespie and was even out of the country on Election Day, but he did record a robocall phoned into voters’ homes at the last minute.

Ruth M. Anderson, a Republican who is on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, said Mr. Gillespie deftly handled the turbulent political climate in the era of Trump.

“I think he has done a great job with that,” she said. “Some of his vision definitely aligns with the major goals of President Trump. So I think he has done what he can. I mean the commonwealth did not vote for Mr. Trump, the majority of voters did not, so you have to navigate that. I think he has done a great job.”

Being seen as the Trump standard-bearer was an odd position for Mr. Gillespie, a former lobbyist, Republican Party chairman and senior adviser to President George W. Bush who had been among the more liberal members of the party on immigration.

Mr. Northam, meanwhile, chased his party’s left wing during the race, embracing positions long held by the national party but which some Virginia Democrats used to eschew, such as strict gun control.

Where Mr. Gillespie faced a deeply divided Republican Party, Mr. Northam benefited from a united Democratic Party, with former President Barack Obama campaigning for him, as did the man Mr. Northam topped in the primary, former Rep. Tom Perriello, who was backed by Sen. Bernard Sanders.

The race was also buffeted by racial tensions after white supremacists marched in Charlottesville in August to defend a statue of Robert E. Lee, clashing with counterprotesters. In the aftermath, a man police connected to the white supremacists drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters, killing one woman.

In the wake of the violence, communities across the country said they would take down Confederate memorials — and Christ Church in Alexandria said it would also remove a plaque erected in memory of George Washington, who was one of its founding members and still has his family pew demarcated.

Both Virginia gubernatorial candidates said decisions about memorials should be left to localities, though Mr. Northam said his preference would be to pull down the monuments. Mr. Gillespie said they should remain.

Voters, according to exit polls, sided with Mr. Gillespie on that question — but little else. They said they trusted Mr. Northam more on race relations, generally thought Mr. McAuliffe had done a good job, and held a more favorable view of the Democratic Party.

Mr. Trump’s job approval rating was also upside down, with 55 percent disapproving.

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

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