By JONATHAN MARTIN and ALEXANDER BURNS
FAIRFAX, Va. – Voters delivered their first forceful rebuke of President Donald Trump and his party on Tuesday night, with Democrats exploiting Trump’s deep unpopularity to capture the governorships in Virginia and New Jersey and make significant inroads into suburban communities that once favored the Republican Party.
The Democratic Party’s crowning success of the night came in Virginia, where Lt. Gov. Ralph S. Northam, a physician and Army veteran, won a commanding victory for governor, overcoming a racially charged campaign by his Republican opponent and cementing Virginia’s transformation into a reliably Democratic state largely immune to Trump-style appeals.
Northam was propelled to victory over Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee, by liberal and moderate voters who were eager to send a message to Trump in a state that rejected him in 2016.
The campaign between a pair of low-key, establishment politicians was brought to life when Gillespie injected a handful of wedge issues, from immigration to Confederate iconography, into the race. But voters in Virginia’s affluent and highly educated urban centers overwhelmingly rejected those tactics, handing Northam enormous margins in the state’s most vote-rich localities.
The Democrats’ electoral validation, though, took place well beyond the Virginia governor’s race: They wrested the governorship of New Jersey away from Republicans, swept two other statewide offices in Virginia and made gains in the Virginia Legislature, and won a contested mayoral race in New Hampshire.
In New Jersey, Philip D. Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive, won the governorship by a vast margin that brought an unceremonious end to Gov. Chris Christie’s tumultuous tenure.
In both Virginia and New Jersey, voters rebuffed a wave of provocative ads linking immigration and crime, suggesting the limitations of hard-edge tactics in the sort of affluent and suburban communities that are pivotal in next year’s midterm elections.
Even though Republicans in the two states mirrored Trump’s grievance-oriented politics, they kept him at arm’s length: He became the first president not to appear for gubernatorial candidates in either state since 2001, when George W. Bush shunned the trail after the Sept. 11 attacks.
Since then, four of the five governors Virginia has elected have been Democrats. Northam’s victory also handed Democrats a stronger hand to block any Republican attempts at gerrymandering after the next census, in 2020.
U.S. Rep. Scott Taylor, R-Virginia Beach, said he considered the Democratic sweep in Virginia a repudiation of the White House. He faulted Trump’s “divisive rhetoric” for propelling the party to defeat, and said he believed traditionally Republican-leaning voters contributed to Northam’s margin of victory.
“I do believe that this is a referendum on this administration,” Taylor said of the elections. “Democrats turned out tonight, but I’m pretty sure there were some Republicans who spoke loudly and clearly tonight as well.”
Channeling the shock of Republicans across the state, Taylor voiced disbelief at the party’s rout down ballot. “I know folks that lost tonight who were going against candidates I’d never even heard of,” he said.
Trump was quick to fault Gillespie for keeping his distance, writing on Twitter while traveling in South Korea that the Republican candidate “did not embrace me or what I stand for.”
Gillespie made no mention of Trump in his concession speech, and alluded only in passing to the explosive themes that he wielded as a candidate. Ticking off kitchen-table issues he campaigned on, Gillespie noted his supporters were worried about “safety for themselves and their families and their businesses,” among other concerns.
Addressing supporters in a hotel ballroom, Gillespie tried to tack a courteous finale on to a rough-and-tumble race, offering his assistance to Northam going forward. “I wish him nothing but the best success,” Gillespie said.
Northam’s victory was a tonic to an anxious national party that has been reeling since Trump’s win last year and was demoralized by losses in special House elections in Montana and Georgia.
A native of Virginia’s rural Eastern Shore who bears a Tidewater accent that reveals his rural roots, Northam, 58, was a perhaps an unlikely vessel for the resistance-era Democratic Party. But the left overlooked the two votes he cast for George W. Bush before he entered politics, and his resume – he is a pediatric neurologist and Gulf War veteran – proved far more appealing to the state’s broad middle than Gillespie’s background as a corporate lobbyist.
The Democrats’ success here was all the more sweet to them because it came as Gillespie, trailing in the polls, turned to a scorched-earth campaign against Northam in the race’s final weeks.
Gillespie, a fixture of his party’s establishment who had once warned against the “siren song” of anti-immigrant politics, unleashed a multimillion-dollar onslaught linking his rival to a gang with Central American ties and a convicted pedophile who had his rights restored, while also assailing Northam for wanting to remove Virginia’s Confederate statues.
The strategy appeared to help Gillespie narrow the gap in the wake of the Charlottesville protests this summer, but it was not enough to overcome the anti-Trump energy in an increasingly diverse state that has not elected a Republican to statewide office since 2009.
Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, found it difficult to balance appeals to the president’s unflagging supporters in rural Virginia while simultaneously attempting to win over Trump’s skeptics in the state’s population centers. He often would not say the president’s name, referring instead to “the administration” or last year’s Republican “ticket.”
In his concession speech, Gillespie made no mention of Trump, and declined to answer questions about the president’s criticism on Tuesday night.
Northam did not have to concern himself with any such political contortions running in a state that has backed the Democratic nominee for president in the last three elections, a striking role reversal from an earlier day here when Virginia Democrats had to distinguish themselves from their more liberal national party.
Indeed, support for Northam represented a vote for continuity. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat barred by state law from seeking re-election, is broadly popular, as are the state’s two Democratic senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner. McAuliffe, who was elected in 2013 during President Barack Obama’s second term, was the first person in 40 years to win a Virginia governor’s race who was in the same party as the president’s.
The Virginia election was a rare point of genuine suspense on a map of off-year races dominated by Democrats. In New Jersey, the Democratic ticket established a decisive advantage early in the campaign season, and that lead never flagged. Murphy, a wealthy Democratic donor who served as ambassador to Germany under Obama, ran on a message of rejecting both Trump and Christie, who is a politically toxic figure in the state. A cavalcade of major national Democrats marched through the state to back Murphy, including Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden.
National Republicans virtually ignored the race, viewing their nominee, Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno, as doomed by a deeply hostile political environment and her association with Christie.
In Virginia, given the state’s steady drift left, Northam began the race as the front-runner. And he was not expected to have a primary at all. But in an illustration of the turbulent politics that is upending both parties, the two establishment candidates each faced challenges in the June primaries from candidates making more ideological appeals.
After blanketing the state’s airwaves before the primary with an ad in which he savaged the president as “a narcissistic maniac,” Northam struck a more sober-minded tone during the general election with another widely aired commercial in which he vowed to “work with” Trump when it is in the interest of Virginia.
The tone of the race changed in October when Gillespie began airing an ad excoriating Northam for supporting a state measure in support of so-called sanctuary cities, which limit cooperation with federal immigration agents. The commercial featured a group of heavily tattooed men who turned out to be prisoners in a Salvadoran jail.
It was followed not long after by a series of ads focusing on Northam’s support for the restoration of rights for felons after they are released from prison; these featured a convicted child molester.
Democrats cried foul, but then only seemed to hand Gillespie a chance to express his own outrage when, in the last week of the campaign, a liberal Hispanic advocacy group aired a commercial portraying a man in a truck with a Gillespie sticker trying to drive into a group of children of color.
The group pulled the spot in the aftermath of the deadly truck attack in New York and Northam distanced himself from it, but it gave Republicans fodder at the 11th hour.