RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam won the Democratic nomination in the closely watched race for governor Tuesday, defeating a more liberal insurgent challenger in a contest to be one of the party’s standard-bearers against President Donald Trump. Northam will face Ed Gillespie in the general election. The former Republican National Committee chairman eked out an uncomfortably close victory against an outspoken Trump supporter who made preserving Virginia’s Confederate history a top campaign issue. Although the Democratic contest garnered the most pre-election attention, Gillespie’s narrow victory against former Trump state campaign chairman Corey Stewart provided the night’s biggest surprise. Gillespie was expected to win easily, and the close contest shows Trump’s enduring appeal among GOP voters in Virginia and a potentially rocky path forward for Republicans in a state where Democrats have win every statewide election since 2009.
Northam wound up handily defeating former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello, who ran as an unapologetic liberal crusader supported by prominent national Democrats like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as the best candidate to take on Trump. Northam, a usually low-key pediatric neurologist, won running as a pragmatist with state’s Democratic establishment’s firm support. He gave a fiery victory speech Tuesday, vowing to win over Perriello supporters and lead Democrats in retaking control of the state House of Delegates in the general election. “It is time for us to get back on offense and stop playing so much defense,” Northam said. The general election is expected to be an early referendum on the president and a preview of what the 2018 midterm elections will look like. Virginia is one of only two states electing new governors this year, and the swing-state contest is likely to draw intense national scrutiny for signs of how voters are reacting to Trump’s first year in office.