Establishment candidates prevailed in Virginia’s gubernatorial primaries Tuesday, with Ed Gillespie squeaking by Corey Stewart for the Republican nomination while Ralph Northam had an easier path to the Democratic nomination, defeating Tom Perriello.
Voters went to the polls across the commonwealth Tuesday to set the stage for what will be one of the most high-profile political contests in the nation, but the race expected to be the close one wasn’t.
Speaking to his supporters in Woodbridge Tuesday night, Stewart, the Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman, maintained the GOP race was too close to call. He tweeted before polls closed he expected a razor-thin Republican primary and predicted a recount, which he’s likely to demand if the vote is close enough.
“We’ve been backing down too long in defense of our culture, of our heritage and our country,” Stewart said to his supporters. “And we for the last several months have been fighting. That fight will continue. I will continue to fight with you as long as you continue to fight with me.”
Stewart said the results validate his positions on issues like a crackdown on illegal immigration and phasing out the state income tax.
About a half hour later, in a Richmond room much happier than two hours earlier when supporters brimmed with worry, Gillespie accepted the Republican nomination, saying he is going to unify the party.
“For all of those, who supported my opponents, Corey Stewart and Frank Wagner, who waged hard-fought campaigns, not only do they appreciate your efforts, but we do, too,” Gillespie said.
“We want you to know that we not only will listen to you, we will fight for you through November to win this election and we want you to be part of our effort, and you are very welcome to join this campaign,” he added. “We cannot afford four more years of a liberal governor in the commonwealth of Virginia.”
Northam learned of his victory much earlier in the evening. He won 56 percent of the votes in what was projected to be the closest race of the day.
“We’re going to focus on building our team, building our party out in Virginia, and we feel confident about running the race in November,” he told News4.
Several prominent Virginia Democrats joined Northam on stage in Crystal City after his victory, including U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and Gov. Terry McAuliffe.
“What we’re celebrating here tonight, it is a very long night for the Republican party of Virginia,” McAuliffe said.
Prior to their remarks, opponents of a Dominion Energy pipeline took over the podium to protest. Northam’s opponent also is a strong opponent of the pipeline.
In Falls Church, Perriello said his campaign will continue to make a difference into the fall.
“Together we have helped elevate and mainstream ideas that should have been there all along,” he said.
The Democratic primary contest was a hard fought battle between Lt. Gov. Northam, the state party establishment’s favorite, and insurgent candidate Perriello. Both candidates pledged fierce opposition to President Donald Trump and his policies.
On the Republican side, frontrunner Gillespie, a moderate Washington insider, fended off under-funded but spirited campaigns from avid Trump supporter Stewart and State Sen. Frank Wagner.
Voters also chose candidates for lieutenant governor and several state House seats.
Justin Fairfax won the Democrats’ nomination for lieutenant governor, and Jill Vogel won the Republican nomination.
Danica Roem won the Democratic nomination for the House of Delegates 13th District seat. Roem is the first transgender person to ever run for the Virginia General Assembly, according to her Facebook page.
Other Democrats winning nominations for the House are Elizabeth Guzman in the 31st District, Tia Walbridge in the 33rd, Kathy Tran in the 42nd, Hala Ayala in the 51st, Melissa Dart in the 56th and Karrie Delaney in the 67th.
For the Republicans, Bob Thomas won the nomination for the 28th District of the House of Delegates, Bobby Orrock won the 54th District, Jackson Hunter Miller won the 50th and John McGuire won the 56th.
The Democratic nomination for the 2nd District of the House of Delegates was too close to call. Jennifer Carroll Foy led Joshua King by just 10 votes with 100 percent of precincts reporting.
Perriello, who served in the U.S. House from 2008 to 2010, ran as a liberal crusader supported by Sen. Bernie Sanders, promising to stand up to both Trump and the entrenched business interests that dominate state politics. His pitch to voters was emotional, saying Trump’s victory signaled a new moment in American politics and a more progressive pushback is needed.
Northam also vowed to fight Trump but said he will work with state Republicans to move a progressive — and realistic — agenda forward. He courted reliable Democratic voters, saying he is the more pragmatic choice who can win in the general election.
In Fairfax and Loudoun counties more Democratic ballots than Republican ballots were being cast, in part because the Democratic race for governor between Northam and former Perriello was seen as the closest race. More than 500,000 Democrats cast ballots in the commonwealth, almost 150,000 more than the Republicans.
Some Democrats said they were motivated by Trump’s presidency to vote Tuesday.
“His agenda and Repulicans in Congress scare me, so very motivating for me to be out,” Democratic voter Ray Crittenden said.
Democrats are hopeful that trend will carry through to November.
The contest was in a swing state Hillary Clinton won in November. New Jersey, the only other state electing a governor this year, had its gubernatorial primary last week, and establishment candidates in both parties won easily.
In Richmond, Kelly Barrows cast her ballot for Perriello because she said the former congressman more closely aligns with her progressive views. The 29-year-old restaurant manager said having Trump in the White House has pushed her to become more interested in state and local politics.
“It has made me realize how important local politics has become, considering I don’t really feel like I have a whole lot of control in federal politics at the moment,” Barrows said.
But Frank Von Richter said he voted for Northam because he likes that the lieutenant governor is more “middle of the road” than Perriello and thinks he will work better with a Republican-controlled General Assembly. The retired Richmond resident said Northam is strong on issues like education and health care and will continue McAuliffe’s efforts to bring more jobs to Virginia.
In northern Virginia, some voters told News4 they also preferred Northam for being more middle of the road and for his experience.
“To be honest, I’m happy with either one but feel like Ralph has the experience,” Judy Helmich said.
Perriello gained ground on Northam with the help of prominent national Democrats. He cast himself as an unapologetic liberal and front-line warrior in the resistance to Trump and has been endorsed by Sen. Elizabeth Warren and heavily bankrolled by Democratic super donors George Soros and Donald Sussman.
Perriello’s big test was whether that national support would attract more voters in a primary, which typically has lower turnout compared with a general election. He has taken a hardline stance against two proposed natural gas pipelines, a move that’s separated him from Northam and been cheered by some environmentalists and land owners.
Northam, a well-liked pediatric neurologist, had a head start on the trail and in money raised. He used those advantages to shore up support from many of the state Democratic Party’s core constituencies, including teachers’ groups and African-American political and religious leaders. He has highlighted his strong support for abortion rights and gun control, two issues where Perriello has baggage from his past votes in Congress.
Perriello has apologized for an anti-abortion amendment he voted for in Congress and has distanced himself from his past praise of the National Rifle Association.
Northam was critical of some of Perriello’s promises, like raising taxes on the wealthy to pay for social programs, saying they aren’t realistic in a state where Republicans control the legislature. But like Perriello, Northam has been unsparing in criticism of Trump, calling him a “narcissistic maniac.”
On the Republican side, Stewart has tried to make his support of Trump a top issue while Gillespie has largely tried to keep Trump at arm’s length.
Gillespie was backed by most of the state party establishment and has focused on pocketbook issues, including proposing a modest cut to the state’s income tax rate. Stewart tried to overcome his campaign’s financial disadvantage by continually courting controversy, notably with a full-throated defense of Virginia’s Confederate history and monuments.
Wagner, meanwhile, touted his experience as a veteran lawmaker who can fix the state’s congested highways.
Kevin Felty, a Norfolk Republican, said he voted for Gillespie because of his fundraising prowess in what’s likely to be a bloody general campaign. Felty, a 48-year-old surgical assistant, said a GOP victory in Virginia would wrestle back the “narrative being touted in the mainstream media that the Democrats are gaining traction” under Trump.