RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam won the Democratic nomination in the closely watched race for governor Tuesday, defeating a more liberal insurgent challenger in a contest to be one of the party’s standard-bearers against President Donald Trump.
Northam will face Ed Gillespie in the general election. The former Republican National Committee chairman eked out an uncomfortably close victory against an outspoken Trump supporter who made preserving Virginia’s Confederate history a top campaign issue.
Although the Democratic contest garnered the most pre-election attention, Gillespie’s narrow victory against former Trump state campaign chairman Corey Stewart provided the night’s biggest surprise. Gillespie was expected to win easily, and the close contest shows Trump’s enduring appeal among GOP voters in Virginia and a potentially rocky path forward for Republicans in a state where Democrats have win every statewide election since 2009.
Northam wound up handily defeating former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, who ran as an unapologetic liberal crusader supported by prominent national Democrats like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as the best candidate to take on Trump.
Northam, a usually low-key pediatric neurologist, won running as a pragmatist with state’s Democratic establishment’s firm support. He gave a fiery victory speech Tuesday, vowing to win over Perriello supporters and lead Democrats in retaking control of the state House of Delegates in the general election.
“It is time for us to get back on offense and stop playing so much defense,” Northam said.
The general election is expected to be an early referendum on the president and a preview of what the 2018 midterm elections will look like. Virginia is one of only two states electing new governors this year, and the swing-state contest is likely to draw intense national scrutiny for signs of how voters are reacting to Trump’s first year in office.
At Northam’s event in Arlington, there were cheers and high fives as news spread that he had been declared the victor.
Hyun Lee, 37, of Centreville, Virginia, who had done phone banking and knocked on doors for Northam, was one of the people at the party.
“I trust his leadership. I trust his dedication to all Virginians,” Lee said of Northam. “He cares for everyone.”
Perriello made a surprise entrance into the race in January and faced an uphill climb from the beginning. He energized many new-to-politics voters who oppose Trump but was ultimately unable to expand the universe of Democratic primary voters enough to counter Northam’s advantages.
Perriello pledged in his concession speech to help Northam and said his campaign had shown that a “movement” is “rising up.”
“I don’t know about you, but I’m inspired to keep fighting tonight,” Perriello said.
Northam had been essentially campaigning for years, making key contacts with influential power brokers like prominent African-American politicians and religious leaders, and building up a large cash advantage that let him outspend Perriello on TV advertising in the closing weeks of the race.
In the Republican race, Gillespie enjoyed a huge fundraising advantage against Stewart and state Sen. Frank Wagner as well as the support of most state Republican lawmakers. But Stewart repeatedly blasted the former Washington lobbyist as a product of the “swamp” Trump had pledged to drain.
Stewart did not immediately concede the race.
“We really don’t know how it’s going to turn out tonight. But we’ve continued a movement started by our president in 2016. We are going to carry it through into 2018,” he said.
Associated Press reporters Ben Finley in Norfolk, Jessica Gresko in Arlington, and Alanna Durkin Richer in Richmond contributed to this report.