How Gov.-elect Ralph Northam rode a wave of anti-Trump sentiment to victory in Virginia

Northam rode concerns about health care and anti-Trump sentiment to victory.

ByABC News
November 8, 2017, 4:01 PM

— -- Celebrating his sweeping victory Tuesday evening in the closely watched Virginia governor’s race, Ralph Northam made sure he mentioned the profession he’s been in for nearly his entire adult life.

“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. And I’m here to let you know that the doctor is in,” Northam announced to a cheering crowd gathered in Fairfax, a suburban town about 20 miles outside of Washington, D.C. “And this doctor will be on call for the next four years!”

With 39 percent of Virginia voters picking health care as their top issue in Tuesday’s election, according to ABC News exit poll data, it seems that Northam’s emphasis on his professional background paid off.

Northam, a former Army doctor and pediatric neurologist, now rises from the seat of lieutenant governor to governor, winning a race that buttresses Democratic hopes that 2018 will bring a wave of victories spurred by anti-Trump sentiment nationwide.

Here’s a bit more on Northam’s path to the governor’s mansion:

A slow, steady rise

Northam’s rise to the top office in Virginia follows a steady rise through the party ranks in the Commonwealth.

Northam is a product of Onancock, a small town on Virginia’s eastern shore, a rural and agricultural part of the state that has been frequently overshadowed in recent statewide elections due to the outsized focus on the suburban areas outside of Washington, D.C., that have seen an economic and population boom in the last two decades.

He spent eight years as an Army doctor treating soldiers wounded in Operation Desert Storm, later going on to practice medicine in Norfolk and serve as the volunteer director of a children’s hospice in the area.

First elected in 2007 as a state senator, a position he held for six years, Northam was elected lieutenant governor in 2013 alongside Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a heavyweight in Democratic politics and longtime party insider.

Throughout his tenure as Virginia’s second highest-ranking official, Northam largely kept a low profile, biding his time before launching his gubernatorial campaign.

Northam faced an upstart challenger in the Democratic primary in former U.S Rep. Tom Perriello, who had the backing of Bernie Sanders and other progressive groups, but Northam was able to pull out a narrow victory with McAuliffe’s backing.

Perriello campaigned aggressively for Northam in the general election and hailed his victory, along with gains in the Virginia House of Delegates, as a sign of what’s possible for Democrats in 2018.

“I really think this was a moment that the whole country is feeling of a restoration of sanity and core values of inclusion,” Perriello said on a call today with reporters, “I think last night was very much an election about changing the sense of what’s possible in Virginia and beyond.”

A tense campaign in a changing state

Tuesday’s victory for Northam comes after a campaign that began as a fairly tame race between two political moderates, but morphed into a fierce political battle centered on issues like illegal immigration, race relations and Confederate monuments.

The soft-spoken Northam is in many ways not a candidate made for the Trump era, where Democrats are hungry for a progressive fighter who will stand up to President Donald Trump at every turn.

Northam did, however, tie his opponent to Trump early and often, and many are pointing to Tuesday’s results as tangible pushback against the president and his style of politics.

“This was all about Trump,” said Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “Democrats are angry, have been all year long, and wanted to send Trump a message. A remarkable number of voters interviewed at the polls put it in just those terms,”

According to exit poll data from ABC News, 34 percent of Virginia voters said they were voting to show opposition to Trump, compared to just 17 percent who said they were voting to express support.

Despite the grumblings from some on the left, Northam did embrace issues like gun control, which 17 percent of voters ranked as their top issue in the race, and called for a ban on assault weapons in the state following the deadly October shooting in Las Vegas. Northam also continually hit on the issue of health care, which took center stage in the race as congressional Republicans continued their push to repeal-and-replace agenda throughout the fall.

Northam won victories not in the suburban areas around Washington, D.C., as well as in and around the city of Richmond. He also scored a victory in Virginia Beach, an area won by Democrats only once in the last four gubernatorial elections, and improved on the margins McAuliffe won by in 2013, and even outperformed Hillary Clinton’s 2016 numbers in some areas.

Northam’s victory will be used by many to try and gauge the political landscape ahead of the 2018 midterm elections, and it’s clear that Democrats need to capitalize on the momentum from Tuesday.

“Democrats nationally should nominate candidates in every possible district, even some that may look hopeless, in order to be in a position to take advantage of any wave that develops. That’ll add a few seats to the Democratic total because they’ll win a few long-shot contests,” Sabato said.

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