RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Voters in Virginia and New Jersey gave Democratic gubernatorial candidates large victories Tuesday and sent a clear message of rebuke to Republican President Donald Trump.
In Virginia’s hard-fought contest, Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie. In New Jersey, front-running Democrat Phil Murphy trounced Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno to succeed unpopular GOP Gov. Chris Christie.
The victors said Tuesday’s electoral results had far-reaching repercussions in a sharply divided country.
“Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we do not condone hatred and bigotry,” Northam said.
“The days of division are over. We will move forward,” Murphy said in his own victory speech, invoking Trump by name as he looked headed to a double digit win. Murphy, who earned a fortune at Goldman Sachs before serving as Barack Obama’s ambassador to Germany, delivered his address in the same spot as Christie in his 2013 re-election— after Christie won big over his Democratic rival.
The wins in both states are a morale boost to Democrats who had so far been unable to channel anti-Trump energy into success at the ballot box in a major election this year.
“The people are gonna rise up. They’re not gonna take what he says and this is not fake news,” said Leanna Barnes, a 76-year-old from East Orange, New Jersey, who voted for Murphy and called his victory a message to the president.
Virginia college student Tamia Mallory said she began paying attention to her state’s gubernatorial race when she saw tweets from Trump endorsing Gillespie. That motivated her to examine the race and find out who was running against Gillespie, she said.
“It was kind of an anti-Trump vote,” Mallory said.
Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, repeatedly sought during long months of divisive campaigning to tie Gillespie to the president. His victory was in large part due to the surge in anti-Trump sentiment since the president took office. Democrats said they had record levels of enthusiasm heading into the race in Virginia, a swing-state and the only Southern state Trump lost last year.
Gillespie, meanwhile, sought to keep Trump at a distance throughout the campaign but tried to rally the president’s supporters with hard-edge attack ads focused on illegal immigration and preserving Confederate statues. The strategy was criticized by Democrats and some Republicans as race baiting, but drew praise from former Trump strategist Steve Bannon and others as a canny approach in a state that voted for Hillary Clinton last year.
Trump lent limited pre-election support to Gillespie with robocalls and tweets.
In one call, Trump said Gillespie shared his views on immigration and crime and would help “Make America Great Again.” Trump also said Northam would be a “total disaster” for Virginia.
But after Tuesday’s loss, Trump suggested that Gillespie hurt himself by not more closely aligning himself with the president.
“Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for,” Trump said in a tweet after Northam won. He also pointed out that Republicans have won every special election to the U.S. House since he was elected.
Northam’s victory is a blow to Republicans, who were hoping that Gillespie could provide a possible roadmap for moderate Republicans to follow in next year’s midterm elections. Several Republicans have announced plans to retire next year instead of seeking re-election, and Gillespie loss may prompt more such announcements.
A former White House aide to President George W. Bush and a Washington lobbyist, Gillespie struck a humble tone in his concession speech as he offered support to Northam. Gillespie wiped tears from his eyes while thanking his wife and said the million people who voted for him love Virginia, and so do those who disagree with them.
“And I know they too are rooting for our new governor to succeed because we all love the commonwealth of Virginia,” Gillespie said.
The mood was subdued at Gillespie’s gathering at a Richmond-area hotel, with supporters not shocked at the outcome but surprised at how poorly Republicans did. Democrats swept all three of Virginia’s statewide races and nearly wiped out Republicans’ overwhelming majority in the Virginia House of Delegates on Tuesday. A handful of races that will decide control of the body remaining too close to call.
Gillespie supporter Elsa Smith said Republicans needed to do a better job of appealing to minorities if they want to win future races.
“We are not taking care of the demographics the way we should,” said Smith, an owner of a Spanish translation business.
Democrats were gleeful at Northam’s victory party. U.S. Rep. Gerry Connolly called Northam the “perfect antidote” to the president.
“This is a comprehensive victory from the statehouse to the courthouse. Thank you, President Trump,” Connolly said.
The Democratic victories are another sign of Virginia’s shift toward a more liberal electorate. Democrats have won every statewide election since 2009 and now have won four out of the last five gubernatorial contests. Northam, pediatric neurologist and Army doctor, banked heavily during the campaign on his near-perfect political resume and tried to cast himself as the low-key doctor with a strong Southern drawl as the healer to Trump’s divisiveness.
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