Gillespie had 43.7 percent of the GOP primary vote to 42.6 percent for Stewart with 99 percent of precincts reporting. | AP Photo
Ed Gillespie narrowly held off a shockingly stiff challenge from Prince William County Supervisor Corey Stewart in Virginia’s GOP gubernatorial primary, highlighting the continued appeal of President Donald Trump to Republican primary voters, while Democratic Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam won his party’s nomination comfortably against former Rep. Tom Perriello.
Northam had 57 percent of the Democratic vote to Perriello’s 43 percent when the Associated Press called the race after 8 p.m. Perriello congratulated his one-time rival on Twitter and nodded to both of their anti-Trump campaigns, writing: “Let’s go win this thing—united. Let’s take back the [state] House and ensure VA remains a firewall against hate.”
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And Northam pledged to stand up to President Donald Trump’s “hate” in his victory speech, telling a cheering crowd, “I’m a fighter.”
Meanwhile, the Republican primary went late into the evening, even though public polling had shown Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, crushing Stewart, an anti-illegal immigration crusader who had served as Trump’s Virginia campaign chairman. Gillespie had 43.7 percent of the GOP primary vote to 42.6 percent for Stewart with 99 percent of precincts reporting.
The final margin would have to be less than 1 percentage point for Stewart to ask for a recount, according to the Virginia Department of Elections.
Gillespie nodded at the unexpectedly close result when he spoke to supporters late Tuesday night. “Obviously we did not waste a penny, any more than we needed to win this nomination,” he said.
“If you supported someone else during this primary contest, I would be honored to have your support because the stakes facing Virginia are too high,” Gillespie wrote in an email to supporters.
Northam will start the general election as the favorite, with early polls showing giving him a double-digit lead over Gillespie. And Republicans may face presidential-level headwinds in the general election. Trump’s approval ratings have been in the 30s in Virginia for months, and he lost the state to Hillary Clinton in 2016 even while winning the presidency.
A record-breaking 542,000 voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary, while about 365,000 voted in the Republican primary that was expected to be a sleepy affair.
Stewart did everything he could to spark the GOP primary, attacking Gillespie as soft on immigration, not friendly enough with Trump and insufficiently opposed to abortion rights — and loudly opposing the removal of Confederate monuments. Gillespie avoided red meat during the primary campaign, instead promising tax cuts, attacking Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s stewardship of the economy and emphasizing he would be a governor for “all Virginians” as he campaigned with an eye on the general election.
Gillespie led in the state’s major population centers: the Richmond metro area, Hampton Roads and the D.C. suburbs in Northern Virginia. Stewart led throughout the state’s rural areas, capturing about half of the vote. State Sen. Frank Wagner, however, did well in his home region of Hampton Roads, drawing the support of establishment Republicans there and picking up about a third of the vote.
Stewart’s performance was already causing alarm among Republican operatives. Tim Miller, who served as Jeb Bush’s communications director, wrote on Twitter that Stewart’s success was “a wake up call to establishment GOP types who think Trump is a Black Swan.”
It’s an “incredible reminder of the outsized influence Trump holds over Republican primary voters,” said another Republican strategist, who noted that several “Never Trump” Republicans in Congress should now be on high alert ahead of next year’s primaries.
Stewart’s campaign was often intentionally provocative, and he chose the Confederate monuments fight as a way to generate earned media attention and make up for Gillespie’s massive advantage in television advertising. The TV ads he did run featured him embracing the president, and accusing Gillespie of failing to support him. He dubbed the former lobbyist and longtime campaign operative “Establishment Ed,” a trick he said borrowed directly from Trump’s “Lil’ Marco” and “Lyin’ Ted” nicknames for his opponents.
“I was similar to Trump well before I joined his campaign,” Stewart told POLITICO in a May interview. “I’ve always been very bold, some would say brash. I’ve always said very edgy, controversial statements. And it’s part of the campaign strategy to attract media attention. I’ve done that forever.”
Gillespie largely chose to ignore Stewart in the final weeks of the campaign, and didn’t attend debates during the final weeks of the race. That left Stewart free to rail against him, the media and Perriello and Northam.
Northam had secured the support of the Virginia’s Democratic establishment months before Perriello entered the contest in January. Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark Warner and every Democrat in the General Assembly had endorsed Northam. Perriello countered by trying to outflank Northam with left-leaning policy proposals, big national money (including hundreds of thousands of dollars from Democratic financiers George Soros and Donald Sussman) and flashy national endorsements (Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Verrmont Sen. Bernie Sanders.)
However, Northam did not leave the Trump-bashing to Perriello, who filmed one of his ads in front of an ambulance getting crushed, saying that it represented what Republicans wanted to do to health care.
Northam has regularly called Trump a “narcissistic maniac” in his TV ads — which Northam, a pediatric neurologist, has insisted is his medical diagnosis. There was little ideological contrast between the Democratic candidates, either; though Northam had a moderate reputation, he campaigned on support for gun control, same-sex marriage, and a host of other progressive issues.
There was a note of Democratic discord in Northam’s victory, even as Perriello pledged unity: A group of anti-pipeline protesters stormed the stage at Northam’s victory party, chanting and holding signs reading “NO TIME TO CELEBRATE. NO PIPELINE!” Perriello had made his opposition to two pipelines being built across the state a major issue in the campaign, and Northam has been non-committal on the pipelines, suggesting he wouldn’t have the power as governor to stop their construction.
Before the race, operatives on both sides thought turnout above 500,000 would likely lead to a Perriello victory, but Northam thrived even with record-shatting voting levels. He ran strong in the state’s urban centers of Norfolk and Richmond, and also defeated the former one-term congressman throughout populous Northern Virginia. Perriello’s advantages among younger voters and in the state’s rural center and west weren’t able to make up the difference.
The deciding factor, however, may have been Northam’s advantage on the airwaves. He outspent Perriello on television by a two-to-one margin, highlighting his endorsements from the Washington Post, NARAL, and local and state elected officials. Perriello’s spots, which played up his endorsements from Sanders, Warren and President Barack Obama’s praise of him in 2010, were seen by far fewer voters.