By Gus Cross and Faith E. Pinho

Democratic candidate Ralph Northam won the hotly contested Virginia governor’s race tonight, beating out Republican Ed Gillespie by a solid margin. With 98 percent of the precincts reporting, Northam had 53.4 percent of the vote to Gillespie’s 45.4 percent.  Libertarian candidate for governor Cliff Hyra did not make a big splash, with just 1.14 percent of the vote.

Northam’s victory represents a win for Democrats across the country, as Americans watched to see how the swing state would vote after President Donald Trump’s surprise election one year ago. Virginia was the only southern state that went for Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton in 2016.  Northam will succeed Democrat Terry McAuliffe; Virginia is the only state that does not allow governors to run for a second consecutive term.

“I want to let you know that in Virginia, it’s going to take a doctor to heal our differences, to bring unity to our people,” Northam said in his victory speech. “And I’m here to let you know that the doctor is in. And this doctor will be on call for the next four years.”

Supporters celebrate Ralph Northam’s election, while partying at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Democrats also carried the rest of the statewide ticket, with Justin Fairfax winning the race to replace Northam as lieutenant governor with 52 percent of the vote and Mark Herring winning another four years as attorney general with 53 percent of the vote.

Northam predictably carried the city of Lexington with 66.46 percent of the vote and  Rockbridge County voted just as strongly for Gillespie with 62.07 percent.

Northam rode to victory in part by tapping into voters’ regret at Trump’s victory in last year’s national election.

Northam repeatedly tried to tie Gillespie to the president. His victory was in large part due to a surge in anti-Trump energy since the president took office. Democrats said they had record levels of enthusiasm heading into the race in Virginia, a swing-state and the only Southern state that Trump lost last year.

Gillespie kept Trump at a distance throughout the campaign but tried to rally the president’s supporters with hard-edge attack ads focused on illegal immigration and preserving Confederate statues. The strategy was criticized by Democrats and some Republicans as race baiting, but drew praise from former Trump strategist Steve Bannon and others as a canny way to win a state that voted for Hillary Clinton last year.

After Tuesday’s loss,  Trump suggested that Gillespie hurt himself by not more closely aligning himself with the president.

“Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for,” Trump said, before pointing out that Republicans have won every special election to the U.S. House since he was elected.

The Northam For Governor election night party was held at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Northam’s victory is another sign of the state’s shift toward a more liberal electorate. Democrats have won every statewide election since 2009 and now have won four out of the last five gubernatorial contests. Northam banked heavily during the campaign on his near-perfect political resume and tried to cast himself as the low-key doctor with a strong southern drawl as the antidote to Trump.

“We need comfort food, Ralph is comfort food,” Del. John Bell told volunteer canvassers at a rally over the weekend.

Northam was born in Virginia and has lived most of his life there, outside of his time in the military and residencies at hospitals in Texas and Washington, D.C. Northam currently serves as Virginia’s Lt. Governor and before that served as a state senator for Virginia’s 6th Senate District. Northam also works at Children’s Hospital of the King’s Daughter in Norfolk as a pediatrician.

Gillespie, born and raised in New Jersey, has served as an advisor to former President George W. Bush and has served as the chair of both the Republican Party of Virginia and the Republican National Committee. In 2014, Gillespie ran for a U.S. Senate seat against incumbent Mark Warner, losing by less than one percent of the vote. Gillespie co-founded the bipartisan lobbyist group Quinn Gillespie and Associates in 2000 with Democrat Jack Quinn.

Hyra, also a native of Virginia, is a graduate of Virginia Tech and earned a law degree at George Mason University in 2007. Before running for governor, Hyra had never participated in politics.

Fairfax is a former assistant U.S. Attorney who has never run for office before. He ran against Jill Vogel, a current state senator for Virginia’s 27th Senate District, serving since 2007.

“The tide is turning for the political climate here in this world,” Fairfaix said in his victory speech.

Herring was challenged by John Adams (R). Herring has served as attorney general since 2014 and before that served as a Virginia state senator when he won a special election for Virginia’s 33rd State Senate District.

“Tonight, the people of Virginia have sent an unmistakable message that will be heard across this nation, across the world—and across the river to the man in the White House—that ours is a commonwealth of hope, of opportunity, of inclusion for everyone,” Herring said in his victory speech.

Adams worked as associate White House counsel under former President George W. Bush and as a federal prosecutor.

Associated Press also contributed to this report. 

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