March 31, 2020

Northam wins big in Virginia, thrilling Democrats

FAIRFAX, Va. — Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D) won the Virginia governor’s race in a blowout Tuesday, fending off a potential gut punch for his party and giving Democrats a badly needed jolt of momentum ahead of the 2018 midterms.

Democrats had grown nervous about the race, fearing a devastating loss that could deal a blow to the party’s momentum. But that anxiety gave way to rejoicing as Northam cruised to victory and Democrats took the New Jersey governor’s mansion and posted gains in the Virginia House of Delegates.

Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie in the race to succeed Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), in what has become the only competitive statewide race of the year. Northam’s win gives Democrats their first major victory since President Trump took office after a string of high-profile special election defeats in GOP districts earlier this year.

Northam exceeded expectations in the race, building up huge vote leads in Democratic areas while competing well against Gillespie in Republican ones.

The resounding victory could help smooth over disputes within the party, as well as concerns about whether Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez is preparing the party for the midterms and capitalizing on anti-Trump sentiment.

As Democrats celebrated, Trump rushed to distance himself from Gillespie. Writing from South Korea, Trump blasted Gillespie in a tweet shortly after the race was called.

“Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for. 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!” Trump wrote.

Northam, a former Army physician and pediatric neurologist, went into the general election with a consistent single-digit lead in a state that has been shifting more to the left. Democrats have won every statewide race in Virginia since 2009, including the 2016 presidential race, in which Trump lost the state by 5 points.

Trump’s underwater approval rating in Virginia also added to the better political environment for Democrats.

But Northam’s lead started to deteriorate in the final month of the race, when the tone started to shift. Gillespie kept his distance from Trump, but adopted his campaign playbook and focused on identity politics and hot-button issues like immigration that helped tighten the race.

Gillespie, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, ran ads about his support for protecting Confederate monuments in the wake of violent clashes over a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. He also knocked Northam over so-called sanctuary cities, arguing that his position helped pave the way for violence by the MS-13 gang.

Northam called Gillespie’s campaign “divisive” and “fear mongering,” and countered with ads seeking to link him to Trump, particularly in Northern Virginia.

But the Virginia Democrat also had his own stumbles in the closing week of the campaign. Northam took heat after an outside Democratic group, Latino Victory Fund, ran an ad that featured a truck sporting a Confederate flag and Gillespie bumper sticker chasing minority children down the street.

Northam’s campaign said it wouldn’t have run an ad like that, but he was still slammed by Gillespie and other Republicans.

Northam faced backlash within his own party after he said that he’d sign a bill to ban “sanctuary cities” if one came to his desk. Democracy for America, a major progressive group, decided to go public and pull “direct aid” for Northam in light of those comments. DFA’s decision further illustrates the rift that the Democratic Party still faces since the 2016 presidential primary and will likely deal with going forward into 2018.

Northam’s victory helps Democrats avoid an embarrassing blow going into the pivotal 2018 midterms. They’ll point to the governor’s race as evidence that they can win elections in the Trump era, as well as effectively campaign against the president in blue-leaning states.

It also shows Republicans are still figuring out how much distance they need to keep from Trump. Gillespie never asked Trump to come down to Virginia to campaign with him and only got several tweets and a last-minute robocall from the president. The decision to never fully embrace Trump or denounce him likely hurt Gillespie with conservative base voters as well as more moderate voters who remain opposed to the president.

But Gillespie’s messaging, which mirrored Trump’s, could serve as a roadmap for future Republican campaigns running in blue-tinged districts and states as a way for the party to fire up its base in midterm elections.

Democrats, however, called Northam’s win a repudiation of that approach.

Source: The Hill