Ralph Northam defeats Gillespie in Virginia Governor race

RICHMOND, Va. – Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam has won the Virginia governor's race, defeating Republican Ed Gillespie.

With 99.57 percent of precincts reporting, Northam has 53.86 percent (1,385,099) of the vote compared to Gillespie’s 44.96 percent (1,156,356).

Virginia's gubernatorial contest was the first major test of Democrats' ability to rebound after Trump's victory. The fundamentals of the state were in their favor: Under Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, unemployment is lower than the national average, and voters have generally told pollsters that they see the commonwealth as on the right track while the nation is on the wrong track.

Northam's victory over GOP lobbyist and former George W. Bush aide Ed Gillespie -- clinched much earlier than nervous Democrats had expected -- left party leaders jubilant about their chances in the 2018 midterm elections, particularly in heavily suburban, Republican-held House districts that look much like the northern Virginia suburbs.

Gillespie distanced himself from Trump personally, but embraced much of the President's agenda, including a focus on illegal immigration and sanctuary cities. Gillespie also echoed Trump's calls to keep Confederate monuments in place and invoked NFL players kneeling during the national anthem.

But Trump immediately disavowed the GOP candidate Tuesday night even as votes were still being counted.

"Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for. Don't forget, Republicans won 4 out of 4 House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!" Trump tweeted.

Democrats also made significant down-ballot gains in Virginia. Justin Fairfax won the lieutenant governor's against Republican Jill Holtzman Vogel, a state senator known for her sponsorship of a 2012 bill that would have required women seeking abortions to undergo vaginal ultrasounds. Social issues were prominent in another statewide race, where Democratic attorney general Mark Herring defeated Republican challenger John Adams, who has hit Herring for his refusal to defend Virginia's same-sex marriage ban in court.

Gillespie, Northam appealed to base voters

Gillespie leaned hard into the cultural battle in the race's final days.

His campaign's closing message was that Democrats had gone too far and portrayed all Republicans as racists -- pointing to a Latino Victory Fund ad that showed four minority children being chased through the streets by a white man driving a pick-up truck with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie bumper sticker. The group spent just $30,000 to air the ad and pulled it almost immediately, but Gillespie's campaign still seized on it.

Despite the ad strategy designed to turn out Trump voters, Gillespie and Trump never campaigned together, despite Trump spending 15 days at his Virginia golf course between Gillespie's primary win and the general election. Trump recorded a robocall on Gillespie's behalf that went to some voters Monday night and Tuesday, and tweeted urging voters to back Gillespie.

Gillespie had mimicked Trump's tactics -- attacking Northam over sanctuary cities while saying he would not remove Confederate Civil War monuments. A Gillespie mailer also referenced the controversy over protests by NFL players. "You'd never take a knee ... so take a stand on Election Day," the mailer reads.

But he has kept personal distance from Trump: The two didn't campaign together at all, despite Trump visiting his own golf course in Virginia 15 times after Gillespie won the Republican nomination.

Republicans nationally were closely watching to see if Gillespie's approach works or whether he got too close to Trump for suburban voters' comfort, or strayed too far away from the President to win over his rural, white base.

Northam, meanwhile, has struggled to motivate the black voters who make up the Democratic base. Former President Barack Obama urged Democrats not to get "complacent" in non-presidential elections during an October rally with Northam in Richmond.

Preliminary exit polls found that Gillespie's focus on keeping Confederate monuments in place could be popular with Virginia voters -- particularly Republicans and independents. Ninety-five percent of Republicans said the monuments should remain in place, and nearly eight in 10 independents agreed. Meanwhile, about seven in 10 Democrats said the statues should be removed.

Helping Northam, though, could be Trump's 43% approval rating among those who voted, according to the preliminary exit polls. Fifty-five percent of Virginia voters said they disapprove of how Trump is handling his job.

The Virginia race carries national importance as a gauge of how voters are reacting to Trump a year into his presidency -- and also because the state is a proving ground for both parties' approaches in the 2018 midterm elections, when Democrats hope to take control of the House and Republicans seek to expand their 52-48 Senate majority.