Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam won the Democratic nomination for governor of Virginia Tuesday, easily beating challenger Tom Perriello in what had been billed as a tight race between the establishment choice and the populist insurgent.
Perriello conceded about 90 minutes after polls closed.
Republican Ed Gillespie, meanwhile, was contending with an unexpectedly strong challenge from rival Corey Stewart. With about 85 percent of precincts reporting, Gillespie had a razor-thin lead of less than a percentage point. State Sen. Frank Wagner was a distant third.
The nation was watching Virginia as a political laboratory for how the parties handle the deep divisions that followed last year’s election of President Trump. Perriello channeled the energy – and endorsement – of progressive leader Sen. Bernie Sanders in trying to shake up the Democratic party, but fell short in his bid to bring in new voters from among the young and working class.
Northam’s command of the state party’s machinery, including the endorsement of every Democrat in the General Assembly and most Democrats in the state’s congressional delegation, simply turned out more voters.
To screams of “Go Tom Go!”Perriello addressed his supporters gathered at the State Theatre and urged unity against “very scary Republicans …. We don’t even know how scary that individual might be yet,” he said, referring to the down-to-the-wire fight between Stewart and Gillespie.
He credited his own campaign with a ‘great victory’ for forcing issues of economic inequality in the political conversation. “Together we helped elevate mainstream ideas that should have been there all along,” he said, citing his support for a $15 minimum wage as an example. “I think it’s movements that change the world, and politicians who work as allies to that movement.”
But first, Perriello praised Northam for winning a “great victory, and offered him my full and unequivocal support.”
Stewart’s strength on the Republican ballot was perhaps the biggest surprise of the evening. He had been running as more Trump than Trump, making provocative statements and campaigning on the issue of preserving Confederate monuments. Polls had shown him with a fraction of Gillespie’s support, but a low turnout among Republican voters gave Stewart’s committed base an outsize influence.
Stewart’s unexpectedly strong showing shocked Republicans at Gillespie’s party at a Hilton Hotel ballroom in the Richmond suburbs, where supporters who had expected a blow-out were concerned to see Stewart running a close second.
“I’m shocked,” said Nancy Russell, who was Hanover County chairwoman when Gillespie ran for Senate in 2014. She was worried that Stewart would doom the GOP’s chances in November if he won the nomination.
“If Donald Trump didn’t carry the state of Virginia, I don’t know how Corey is going to,” she said.
Many voters said they were inspired to come out because of events in Washington. Alexandria resident Curt Arledge, 32, had never voted in a gubernatorial primary before Tuesday but decided that this year that it was too important for him to miss.
Clothed in a T-shirt that displayed Smokey Bear wearing a “resist” hat, the Democrat voted for Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the party’s establishment favorite, because he thought Northam could win in November.
“I can’t recall any of the issues, I hate to admit,” he said. “I want to nominate Democrats who can get elected.”
The race for governor, especially, has focused nearly as much on reaction to events in Washington as to policy concerns within the state. Outside groups have poured money and attention into Virginia, and a vast army of new candidates have flooded the Democratic side of House races — including a record number of women candidates.
“It is really the first big test in a statewide election of the state of the Democratic Party in the Trump era,” said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
On the Republican side, the three candidates vying for the top spot on the ticket represented different paths for a party still adjusting to its unconventional president and the forces that propelled him into office.
While Stewart was all-in with Trump, Wagner based his run on his 25 years of experience in the General Assembly — a strategy that defied the anti-establishment fervor that accompanied Trump’s rise.
And Gillespie, the former Republican National Committee chairman, played it down the middle. He has been a lukewarm supporter of Trump, but cast himself as a true conservative who will cut taxes and promote business.
But Gillespie, apparently trying to conserve resources and cement his frontrunner status, had avoided appearances with his campaign rivals in recent weeks, preferring smaller, more controlled settings. But he never seemed to inspire as much passion as Stewart, for good or bad.
Steve Chapman cast a ballot for Stewart at the George Mullen elementary school in Manassas.
Chapman knows Stewart well: He ran his first campaign for county supervisor in 2003 and tapped him to be his son’s godfather.
Chapman conceded Stewart may have gone a too far with his embrace of Confederate heritage, but figured it was just a campaign shtick.
“Corey, he likes attention so I think he takes controversial stances and I don’t know if he believes it,” said Chapman, who is 39 and self-employed. “That’s what’s he does. It’s a way to get earned media attention.”
On the Democratic side, it was Perriello who was trying to tap into voter passion. He pushed Northam to make the campaign as much about Trump as about state issues.
In Arlington, Matt Canella, 29, and Mariah Finkel, 30, were inspired to vote for Perriello in large part because they felt he had more aggressively attacked the president.
Finkel’s vote, she said, is “mostly based off what I see on commercials.”
But Northam responded in kind, calling Trump a “narcissistic maniac” and pledging to resist his policies.
Trump’s approval rating in Virginia is even worse than it is nationwide: Only 36 percent of Virginians were satisfied with his performance in a poll conducted last month by The Washington Post and the Schar School.
That created a challenge for Republican candidates, because the party’s base still supports the president, said Rozell, the George Mason dean. Virginia’s primary, he said, will show “whether a prominent Republican in a major campaign is able to separate himself in the public’s mind from the unpopular policies and actions of the Trump administration, while at the same time not losing much of the Republican support a candidate is going to need to win a general election.”
A Stewart victory in the primary would, in effect, put Trump on the ballot – making November’s election a clear referendum on the president and his policies and style.
Virginian’s also chose nominees for lieutenant governor, with three candidates running in each party.
With 87 percent of precincts reporting, Republican state Sen. Jill Holtzmann Vogel (Fauquier) had a slight lead over fellow state Sen. Bryce Reeves (Spotsylvania), with Del. Glenn Davis (Virginia Beach) far behind.. That race has gotten ugly at times, as Vogel, a lawyer, and Reeves, a veteran and insurance salesman, have traded accusations of dirty tricks.
On the Democratic side, former federal prosecutor Justin Fairfax had a healthy lead over Susan Platt. Self-funded candidate Gene Rossi was far behind.
In the House of Delegates, all 100 seats were on the ballot. Democrats caught up in anti-Trump fervor say they want to pick up enough seats to take over the majority, but that will be a tough task. Republicans have a 66 to 34 advantage.
John Woodrow Cox, Fenit Nirappil, Laura Vozzella, Patricia Sullivan, Alejandra Matos, Reis Thebault, Sarah Robertson and Catherine York contributed to this report.