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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 celebration 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 by nearly 9 points 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.

"It was said that the eyes of the nation are now on the Commonwealth. Today Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry, and to end the politics that have torn this country apart," Northam said during his victory speech to a packed room of supporters at George Mason University in Fairfax.

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 2018 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.

Gillespie sought to strike a unifying tone in his concession speech, offering his services in "making our Commonwealth better" and congratulating the victorious Democratic statewide ticket.  

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 also 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. 

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.

Northam's large margin of victory - about 9 points by late Tuesday night - also calls into question the roadmap for future Republican campaigns running in blue or swing areas.

Rep. Scott Taylor, the Virginia Republican who represents the military-heavy area around Norfolk, argued that the race was a clear "referendum on the administration" and "divisive rhetoric" by the president.

"If we lose the House of Delegates, as Republicans, we really lose a firewall against Democrat governing," Taylor told a small group of reporters at the Gillespie election night party.

"If that happens tonight, then, again, this is where my profound disagreement comes in with the president's tweet, there has to be some self-reflection at the top and how that's spilling over in the down ballot."

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