Northam wins easily among Democrats; Gillespie barely edges out Trump-aligned candidate
♦By Rich Shumate, ChickenFriedPolitics.com editor
FAIRFAX, Virginia (CFP) — Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam easily won the Democratic nomination for Virginia governor, brushing aside an anti-establishment challenge from former U.S. Rep. Tom Perriello.
But on the Republican side, former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie could only squeak out a narrow win over Corey Stewart, Donald Trump’s one-time Virginia campaign director, in a race that turned out to be much closer than pre-election polls had forecast.
The results of the June 13 primary now set up what is likely to be an expensive and hard-fought race in the fall for the South’s only open governorship.
Among Democrats, North won 55 percent, to 45 percent for Perriello. On the Republican side, Gillespie was at 44 percent, just ahead of Stewart, chair of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, at 43 percent. State Senator Frank Wagner from Virginia Beach brought up the rear at 14 percent.
Unofficial results from the Virginia Department of Elections put Gillespie’s margin over Stewart at just 4,200 votes out of nearly 366,000 votes cast. The margin would have to be within 1 percent of the total votes cast — 3,660 — in order to trigger a recount under state law.
Because Virginia does not have primary runoffs, Gillespie only had to win a plurality to advance to the general election.
Northam, a pediatric neurologist from Norfolk who has spent a decade in state politics, had the backing of most of Virginia’s Democratic political establishment and appeared to be cruising to an easy nomination until Perriello jumped into the race in January.
Perriello’s campaign was endorsed by 2016 presidential candidate U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, along with a slew of former officials from Barack Obama’s administration, in which Perriello served after losing his House seat in 2010.
While Obama did not offer an endorsement, Perriello frequently reminded voters of his connection to the former president. But in the end, Perriello’s insurgent passion could not overcome Northam’s organizational and fundraising advantages.
The Republican race also featured an outsider-versus-insider narrative, with Stewart wrapping himself in the mantle of Trump and vowing to “take back Virginia from the establishment” — a not-so-veiled shot at Gillespie, who served as a White House aide under President George W. Bush before leading the RNC.
One curious feature of the campaign was the decision by Stewart — an native of Minnesota — to publicly decry efforts to remove Confederate monuments from public spaces, which have sparked controversy in Charlottesville and other cities in the South.
The governor’s race in the Old Dominion is one of only two being held this year; the other is in New Jersey. Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe is barred from seeking re-election.
Once reliably Republican, Virginia is the only Southern state that Hillary Clinton carried in 2016, and it has now gone to the GOP in three successive presidential elections.
Three of the commonwealth’s last four governors have been Democrats, and it is is among just three of the 14 Southern states with a Democratic chief executive, the others being West Virginia and Louisiana.