RICHMOND, Va. — Democrats have prevailed in an incendiary off-year gubernatorial race some see as a referendum on the Trump presidency.
The incumbent Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam will spend election night at George Mason University in Fairfax, while Republican nominee Ed Gillespie, a former chair of the Republican National Committee and aide to President George W. Bush, will monitor results from the Hilton Richmond Hotel.
The campaign degenerated into an ugly culture war in the final stretch, betraying the dramatic convulsions of a state whose identity is in flux. Long a bastion of Republican politics, explosive economic and population growth in Virginia’s northern counties has attracted a major influx of young, college-educated voters, recasting the political identity of the Old Dominion.
The Gillespie campaign effectively elevated the issue of illegal immigration and crime to the forefront, launching numerous attack ads tying Northam’s legislative record on immigration and sanctuary cities to the expansion of the violent central American gang MS-13 in and around Virginia communities. Northam in turn accused Gillespie of artificially inflating the issue of sanctuary cities, pointing out that no Virginia municipality is currently in open violation of federal immigration law.
Tensions came to a head in mid-October when a progressive PAC, Latino Victory Fund, ran an ad in which a Gillespie supporter attempted to run down a group of frightened minority children in an imposing black pickup truck adorned with the Confederate battle flag. The ad, which was pulled following a late October truck attack in New York City, appeared to backfire — Gillespie told The Daily Caller’s Vince Coglianese that campaign donations tripled in the wake of the ad’s launch.
Gillespie has conceded by phone to Northam. Democrats have also prevailed in the lieutenant governor and attorney general races.
Though most major networks have called the race for Northam, there is no official confirmation as yet that Gillespie will concede. Democrats have also won 11 GOP-held seats in the state House of Delegates. The party needs to pick up 17 seats to gain a majority in the lower chamber. This live blog will update once more when the Gillespie campaign announces plans to concede.
The Associated Press has called the race for Ralph Northam. Northam continues to run up significant totals in Virginia’s northern counties while Gillespie struggles to meet key benchmarks in Republican locales. The Gillespie campaign has not yet signaled that it plans to concede, though the mood at Republican headquarters in Richmond is decidedly dour.
Decision Desk, an online aggregator of election results, reports Northam leads in 20 of the 30 precincts they have identified as bellwethers.
Gillespie campaign staffers have turned off the television at the candidate’s election night party, which is currently playing the Beatles classic “Here Comes the Sun.”
Polls closed in the commonwealth of Virginia almost an hour ago. As expected, Gillespie has an early lead as heavily conservative precincts tend to submit the first returns. Northam clung to a slight lead in bellwether Prince William County as of this writing. Prince William has supported the winning candidate in the last nine competitive statewide races. The Democratic nominee also holds a commanding lead in Loudon and Fairfax counties, where Gillespie would need to keep his margin of defeat low in order to remain competitive. Both counties have submitted a significant portion of their returns.
Trends suggesting an increased turnout among college-educated whites have generally held at this early stage. Northam has exceeded incumbent Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s vote total in a key Williamsburg, Va. precinct, near the College of William and Mary.
Gillespie also appears to be running behind previous Republican totals in conservative bastions in Virginia’s southwest corner. He holds a narrow lead in Chesterfield County, a strongly Republican jurisdiction southwest of Richmond, where GOP candidates have traditionally won by double digits. A late surge for Gillespie appears unlikely, as many of the state’s deeply conservative rural counties have already returned their results.
Polls close in the marquee gubernatorial race of 2017 in 30 minutes. Late turnout reports suggest a mixed bag for Northam. As of 5:00 p.m., turnout in Fairfax County reached 46.8 percent, according to the local board of elections, suggesting a surge in turnout among white, college-educated voters in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, the core of the Democratic coalition. Charlottesville, Va., home to the University of Virginia, also posted strong turnout. Other reports, however, noted that black turnout appears low in several locales, including the city of Petersburg, just south of Richmond.
This trend would mirror returns from other off-year contests in the post-Obama era, where anti-Trump college-educated whites went to the polls in significant numbers, while turnout dipped among other key Democratic constituencies, including African Americans and Hispanics.
Preliminary exit polls indicate that roughly one-quarter of voters identified as liberal, while roughly one-third identified as conservative. These figures are almost on par with 2016 identification numbers, with conservative identification down slightly.
Returns are likely first to report from the state’s rural stretches, followed by the Richmond metropolitan area. The heavily populated Democratic strongholds in the northern part of the commonwealth will likely report last.
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