Democrats revel in Virginia election victories and anti-Trump backlash begins

Voters have delivered their first forceful rebuke of US President Donald Trump, with the Demoratic Party capturing governorships in two key states and making significant inroads into suburban communities that once favoured the Republican Party. 

The Democrats crowning success on Tuesday night (Wednesday NZT) came in Virginia, where Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, an understated physician and Army veteran, won a commanding victory for governor, overcoming a racially charged campaign by his Republican opponent and cementing Virginia's transformation into a reliably Democratic state largely immune to Trump-style appeals.

Northam was propelled to victory over Ed Gillespie, the Republican nominee, by liberal and moderate voters who were eager to send a message to Trump in a state that rejected him in 2016. 

Northam led Gillespie by nearly nine percentage points, the widest victory in decades for a Democratic candidate for governor of Virginia.

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His dominating performance offered a momentary catharsis for Democrats beyond the state's borders and represented a stern warning to Republicans on the ballot next year about the peril of embracing President Trump's approach.

Addressing jubilant supporters in Northern Virginia, Governor-elect Northam aimed his remarks squarely at Trump and Republicans echoing his politics.

"Virginia has told us to end the divisiveness, that we will not condone hatred and bigotry and to end the politics that have torn this country apart," he said, adding that in this state, "It's going to take a doctor to heal our differences."

The Democrats' electoral validation, though, took place well beyond the Virginia governor's race: They wrested the governorship of New Jersey away from Republicans, swept two other statewide offices in Virginia, made gains in the Virginia Legislature and won a contested mayoral race in New Hampshire.

In New Jersey, Philip Murphy, a former Goldman Sachs executive, won the governorship, according to The Associated Press, by a vast margin that brought an unceremonious end to Governor Chris Christie's tumultuous tenure.

In both Virginia and New Jersey, voters rebuffed a wave of provocative ads linking immigration and crime, hinting at the limitations of hard-edge tactics in the sort of affluent and heavily suburban states that are pivotal in next year's midterm elections.

Even though Republicans in the two states mirrored Trump's grievance-oriented politics, they kept him at arm's length: He became the first president not to appear on behalf of candidates for governor in either state since 2001, when George W Bush shunned the trail after the September 11 attacks.

Since then, four of the five governors Virginia has elected have been Democrats.

The party was also in contention late Tuesday to seize control of the state House of Delegates, an unexpected show of strength that, along with Northam's victory, offered Democrats a stronger hand to block any Republican attempts at gerrymandering after the next census.

Republican representative for Virginia, Scott Taylor, said he considered the Democratic sweep in the state a repudiation of the White House.

He faulted Trump's "divisive rhetoric" for propelling the party to defeat, and said he believed traditionally Republican-leaning voters contributed to Northam's margin of victory.

"I do believe that this is a referendum on this administration," Taylor said of the elections. "Democrats turned out tonight, but I'm pretty sure there were some Republicans who spoke loudly and clearly tonight as well."

Trump was quick to fault Gillespie for the loss, writing on Twitter while travelling in South Korea that the Republican candidate "did not embrace me or what I stand for".

Gillespie made no mention of Trump in his concession speech, alluding only in passing to the explosive themes the President had wielded as a candidate.

Ticking off issues he campaigned on, Gillespie noted that his supporters were worried about "safety for themselves and their families and their businesses".

In New Jersey, the Democratic ticket established a decisive advantage early in the campaign season, and that lead never flagged.

Murphy, a wealthy Democratic donor who served as ambassador to Germany under President Barack Obama, ran on a message of rejecting both Trump and Christie, who is a politically toxic figure in the state.

 - Sydney Morning Herald