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Supporters of Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam begin to celebrate as results start to come in at Northam's election night rally in Fairfax, Virginia, on November 7, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

At Northam victory party, Democrats breathe a sigh of relief

FAIRFAX, Va. — Democrats had lost four straight special elections in 2017, but their fortunes reversed Tuesday night with Ralph Northam’s victory in Virginia’s governor’s race. Across the state and in Washington, D.C., Democrats seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief.

“The Democratic Party is back,” Tom Perez, the Democratic National Committee chairman, told a crowd of supporters at George Mason University, where the Northam campaign held its Election Night party.

Party officials and activists also rejoiced in Washington, just two dozen miles away, as it became clear that Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, had defeated his Republican opponent Ed Gillespie in a race that became a referendum on President Donald Trump.

“Democrats can sleep easy tonight, wake up tomorrow and get right back to work,” said Morgan Finkelstein, the communications director for the Center for American Progress and a former Virginia Democratic operative.

The Associated Press called the race for Northam at 8:12 p.m., hours before many expected a final outcome, a person close to the campaign said.

The auditorium where Northam gave his victory speech was not yet full when the results came in. As the race was called, several supporters looked at their phones, then at each other in visible disbelief.

The crowd erupted when Northam stepped on stage to deliver his victory speech around 10:30 p.m. “We will put the people of Virginia before politics, before party and before ideology,” Northam said.

Gillespie struck a conciliatory tone in his concession speech, saying that he wished Northam “nothing but the best success.”

Republican candidate for Virginia governor Ed Gillespie speaks to supporters after conceding the race to Democrat Ralph Northam in Richmond, Virginia, on November 7, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Julia Rendleman

Republican candidate for Virginia governor Ed Gillespie speaks to supporters after conceding the race to Democrat Ralph Northam in Richmond, Virginia, on November 7, 2017. Photo by REUTERS/Julia Rendleman

The race had tightened in recent weeks, though Northam enjoyed a slight lead over Gillespie since the general election campaign began in June.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, adopted Trump’s stances on controversial issues like preserving Confederate statues and railing against NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

But Trump never campaigned with Gillespie. And shortly after the results came in, the president tweeted that “Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for.”

Northam won by seizing on anti-Trump sentiment and a strong state economy. His victory strengthened the Commonwealth’s status as a reliably blue state. No Republican has won statewide election there since 2009.

Northam’s victory was fueled by increased turnout in Northern Virginia, the state’s most liberal region. The turnout signaled a high level of enthusiasm among liberal voters, something party leaders are hoping will carry over to House and Senate races in 2018. In Fairfax County, for example, Northam earned 44,696 more votes than Democrat Gov. Terry McAuliffe in 2013.

Gillespie was hurt by low turnout in some conservative, southwestern Virginia counties that overwhelmingly supported Trump in 2016. He also faced criticism across the state for divisive campaign tactics.

Democrats said Northam’s victory was a rejection of Gillespie’s racially-charged rhetoric. Northam stood “up against hatred and bigotry,” said Virginia Democrats chairwoman Susan Swecker.

The party’s success extended down the ballot as well. Democrats flipped several state seats, including several high-profile races. Democrat Danica Boem ousted incumbent Republican Bob Marshall to become the first open transgender woman to be elected to the House of Delegates.

In Southwest Virginia, Democrat Chris Hurst also flipped a red district blue. The former television anchor became a vocal advocate for gun reform after his girlfriend, also a T.V. anchor, was shot at work.

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