WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Democrat Ralph Northam won a bitter race for Virginia governor on Tuesday, beating a Republican who embraced some of President Donald Trump’s combative tactics and issues in a potential preview of next year’s midterm election battles.
Northam, the state’s lieutenant governor, overcame a barrage of attack ads by Republican Ed Gillespie that hit the soft-spoken Democrat on divisive issues such as immigration, gang crime and Confederate statues.
The Northam victory in a state that Democrat Hillary Clinton won by 5 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election was a boost for national Democrats who were desperate to turn grassroots enthusiasm to resist Trump into election victories.
Democrats had already lost four special congressional elections earlier this year.
In a sign of the high stakes, Trump took a break from his Asia visit to send tweets and record messages on behalf of Gillespie, a former chairman of the national party. Trump had endorsed Gillespie but not campaigned with him.
The Virginia race highlighted a slate of state and local elections that also included a governor’s race in New Jersey, where Democrat Phil Murphy, a former investment banker and ambassador to Germany, defeated Republican Kim Guadagno for the right to succeed Republican Chris Christie.
Murphy had promised to be a check on Trump in Democratic-leaning New Jersey, and Guadagno, the lieutenant governor, was hampered by her association with the unpopular Christie.
In Virginia, Democrats had worried that if Gillespie won, Republicans would see it as a green light to emphasize cultural issues in their campaigns for next year’s elections, when all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 33 of the U.S. Senate’s 100 seats come up for election. Republicans now control both chambers.
Voters in Arlington County - a Democratic stronghold bordering Washington - connected the election to national politics.
‘GILLESPIE IS THE SWAMP’
“Trump talks about draining the swamp, but Gillespie kind of is the swamp,” said Nick Peacemaker, who works in marketing and considered himself a Republican until Trump won the party’s presidential nomination.
Peacemaker said Gillespie seemed to shift closer to Trump’s policies after securing the Republican gubernatorial nomination.
Retired librarian Diane Morton voted for Northam, in part, because she is highly opposed to Trump.
“I am appalled by what is happening in our country right now,” she said after casting her ballot at an elementary school.
Lee Hernandez, who works in finance, voted for Gillespie because he found the Republican’s economic message persuasive.
Hernandez said he found Northam’s campaign message “a really big turnoff” because of the emphasis on keeping Virginia in Democratic hands.
Democratic strategist Dane Strother said: “Gillespie’s ads played on every fear and dark impulse, and if we lose, we are going to see a lot more of that.”
Gillespie has said his policies and plans to bolster Virginia’s economy helped narrow the polling gap.
But some voters said they came to support him after seeing an ad that an outside pro-Northam group aired - and then quickly took down - depicting a white man chasing down minority children in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie sticker.
Describing the ad as racist, Pete Shinnamon, a retired manufacturer’s representative, said it bolstered his decision not to vote for Northam.
“That did me in,” he said after casting his ballot in Hanover County, a Republican stronghold. “We’ve really sunk to a low level.”
In local races across the country, Democratic Mayors Bill de Blasio in New York and Marty Walsh in Boston were expected to cruise to re-election, while voters were picking mayors in Detroit, Atlanta, Seattle and Charlotte, North Carolina.
Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson and Gary Robertson; Writing by Lisa Lambert and John Whitesides; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney