Ralph Northam won the Virginia governor’s race Tuesday, beating his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie in a race that doubled as a referendum on President Donald Trump’s first year in office.
It was a big night for Democrats, who also captured the governor’s mansion in New Jersey and added a historic down-ballot win in Virginia, where Danica Rome became the first openly transgender person elected. Here are some early takeaways from the night’s contests, and a look at how the races might shape the 2018 midterm elections.
Democrats finally win
After losing a handful of House races earlier this year, the Democratic candidate won what was arguably the year’s biggest contest — a governor’s election in a key (if left-leaning) swing state. Northam’s victory wasn’t unexpected, as he led in the polls going into Tuesday.
But his win brought a measure of relief for a party that has struggled at the ballot box since Trump took office. Democrat Phil Murphy won the New Jersey governor’s race as well, giving the party two victories heading into the 2018 midterm elections.
Can Northam’s centrist strategy work in 2018?
Northam, Virginia’s lieutenant governor, ran as a moderate Democrat while also reaching out to progressives — a sign of how powerful the Bernie Sanders aligned wing of the party has become since the 2016 election. The approach worked, though some liberal groups were frustrated with Northam’s balancing act.
Still, it’s unclear if Northam’s strategy will work for other Democrats. Virginia may be trending blue, but it’s still a swing state with plenty of very conservative pockets. Democrats running in more liberal states next year could run into trouble if they try to replicate Northam’s playbook.
Embracing Trump has its limits
As the campaign wore on, Gillespie moved closer to Trump, embracing the president’s policies and positions on issues like immigration and the debate over Confederate statues. He also ran divisive campaign ads aimed at energizing the conservative base. At the same time, Gillespie kept his distance from Trump on the campaign trail, reportedly never asking the president to stump in Virginia on his behalf.
It’s impossible to know what would have worked best: embracing Trump even more, or running a more moderate and less inflammatory campaign. But one thing is clear: Gillespie’s attempt to split the difference failed. Identifying closely with Trump likely helped with conservative voters, but it also seemed to alienate some moderate Republicans, independents or Democrats.
A blow to Trump
Gillespie’s loss represented an indirect rebuke for Trump, the first by voters since he won the White House one year ago. Though Trump didn’t actively campaign for Gillespie, he weighed in with support for the GOP candidate as recently as early Tuesday morning. In a tweet sent at 2:56 a.m. Trump said that Gillespie would “totally turn around the high crime and poor economic performance of” Virginia.
By the evening, as early results indicated that Northam might win, Trump quickly distanced himself from Gillespie. At 8:40 p.m., Trump tweeted: “Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for.”
A state divided
The early exit polls in Virginia mirrored the national exit polls from the 2016 presidential election.
Northam won among non-white voters by 58 points (Clinton was plus 53 points with that group last year), and won the female vote by 19 points (Clinton was plus 13 among women). Likewise, Northam carried voters aged 18 to 44 by 26 points (Clinton was plus 14 with voters aged 44 and younger), and also outperformed Gillespie among voters earning $50,000 a year and less and also won among college-educated voters.
What do all the numbers amount to? Democrats remain the party of young people, minorities, women, and college-educated voters. And despite the narrative that Trump rekindled the GOP’s standing with working- class voters, the Virginia race underscored that poorer voters also tend to back Democrats as well. It’s a portrait of a nation divided along class, gender and racial lines.
Dems score down ballot successes – and make political history
While most attention in Virginia focused on the governor’s race, Democrats also won several races for state legislative seats. Democrat Danica Roem defeated conservative Republican incumbent Bob Marshall, becoming the first openly transgender person to join a state legislature. Marshall called himself Virginia’s “chief homophobe” and was known for introducing the failed “bathroom bill.”
Roem’s victory and other Democratic flips at the state were good signs for the party heading into the 2018 midterm.
Christie era is (almost) over
Murphy’s win in New Jersey officially made Gov. Chris Christie a lame duck. The term-limited Christie will leave office with low approval ratings, and tied to a president who is unpopular in the state. It’s not the ending many predicted for Christie when he cruised to reelection in 2013 and emerged as a rising Republican star.
Then again, this may not mark the end of Christie’s political career after all. He appeared to fall out of favor with Trump after losing his role running the transition team at the start of the year. But once he leaves office, Christie might angle for a job with the Trump administration, and he could be rewarded.