Democratic Lt. Gov Ralph Northam is projected to edge out Republican lobbyist Ed Gillespie to win the closely contested Virginia governor’s race Tuesday. The off-cycle contest is often billed as a referendum on national issues, usually the performance and popularity of the president, and this year was no different. Trump loomed large over the race, even if Gillsepie didn't mention him by name. For Democrats the win comes as a relief as much as anything. The party may have picked up momentum and support since Donald Trump’s seismic election last November, but with only a handful of unfavorable districts going to the polls in special elections, the party had so far been unable to translate the perception of a gathering storm into actual victories.
Virginia, as a state, has trended Democrat at the national level of late with Barack Obama winning the state both times and Hillary Clinton beating Trump by 5 points last year; both of the state’s senators—Sen. Mark Warner and Sen. Tim Kaine—are former Democratic governors of the state. Despite this recent strength at the top of the ticket, Virginia is far from a lock for the party; current Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who is limited to a single term by Virginia law, won by 2 points in 2014, and statewide elections are usually barbed and very close. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who is cut from the same cloth as McAuliffe as a former national party chair, lost by less than 1 percent to popular incumbent Sen. Mark Warner in 2014.
Gillespie, despite being a party Republican of the George W. Bush era who served as a senior counselor in the Bush White House, repositioned himself as a born-again populist for the race, hitting all the Trumpy cultural themes of blaming immigrants, declaring Confederate monuments sacrosanct, and admonishing NFL players for kneeling in protest during the national anthem. Northam ran hard against Trump in the Democratic primary, but had trouble finding his footing in the general election. Democrats elected statewide in Virginia typically can’t rely on progressive red meat, and some of Northam’s stances on immigration and Trump himself angered the party faithful. That appeared to give Gillespie a plausible path to the governor’s mansion despite flagging Republican popularity nationally. Polls had the two running neck and neck going into Election Day.