By Alexa Epitropoulos and Missy Schrott
The mood was visibly tense as a watch party organized by the Alexandria Democratic Committee began at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at Del Ray’s Pork Barrel BBQ.
The race for governor between Ralph Northam, Virginia’s incumbent lieutenant governor, and Ed Gillespie, a longtime Republican advisor and lobbyist, appeared tight as supporters began arriving at the restaurant shortly after polls closed. The opponents were within a percentage point of one another, and Gillespie had the early lead as the crowd filtered in.
Richard Merritt, who wore a bright blue Northam campaign button, watched the results on a TV tuned to CNN.
“I’ve been campaigning for the past two weeks. I passed out ballots today. I came away worried about the impact of the despicable Gillespie ad campaign,” Merritt said. “…I’m biting my fingernails.”
Betty Livingston, who wore a Northam hat, expressed similar concerns, saying she was apprehensive about Tuesday’s rainy, cold weather.
“I’m hoping the returns from Alexandria will help,” Livingston said. “It’ll be close.”
When Councilor Del Pepper arrived at Pork Barrel, she wasn’t nervous about Gillespie’s early lead.
“I think that at first we may get more Republican returns, but I think we’ll see better results as the night goes on,” Pepper said. “Northam put on a whale of a campaign.”
The longtime city council member said the 2017 election was pivotal for the country.
“This is, in fact, a definitive race. This is about the future,” Pepper said. “There’s been such a huge effort made. I think it’s going to make for quite a turnout.”
The mood began shifting at the midway point.With half the results reported, Northam began pulling ahead and, as the bar area at Pork Barrel filled, news outlets were projecting the Democratic candidate would win the race – one of only two gubernatorial contests this year. (The other was in New Jersey, where Democrat Phil Murphy defeated incumbent Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno.)
Jim Lewis, an Old Town resident and president of the Virginia Young Democrats, was one of the first to celebrate.
“I volunteered for Ralph’s first [Virginia State] Senate campaign,” Lewis said. “If there’s anyone that fits the description of your friend’s dad, it’s him. He’s someone who is willing to do what’s right.”
Glenn Klaus, draped in an LGBT American flag, said he hurried to Pork Barrel when he heard the news that the race was projected to go to Northam.
“We’re ecstatic,” Klaus said. “We just rushed over when we heard the results.” “The word jubilant comes to mind,” Pepper said.
Mayor Allison Silberberg was also celebrating the Democratic win as media outlets projected Northam’s victory.
“This is very exciting. The people have spoken,” Silberberg said. “We’re obviously still
waiting to hear, but it’s incredibly exciting. His whole life has been about serving people.”
Silberberg said Northam would continue to build on current Gov. Terry McAuliffe’s legacy.
“Ralph Northam will make us even stronger. This is the right choice,” she said. “He’ll continue to build on great successes of Gov. McAuliffe – low unemployment, bringing more trade to Virginia.”
That sentiment was echoed by Vice Mayor Justin Wilson.
“It’s exciting. Voters are sending a strong message,” Wilson said. “…It’s a great prelude to state elections two years from now. Virginians are saying they want candidates that focus on the issues that matter most.”
Wilson said he wasn’t necessarily surprised to see Northam taking the lead – but that he was a bit surprised by the margin of victory. Northam would eventually win the race with 53.87 percent to Gillespie’s 44.95 percent with 99 percent of the results reported.
Democrats swept all three statewide races, as Justin Fairfax was elected Lieutenant Governor and incumbent Attorney General Mark Herring won reelection.
Democrats also gained at least 13 seats in the 100-seat Virginia House of Delegates. It was unclear as of the Times’ press time whether they won enough seats to wrest control of that body from Virginia Republicans as several races remained too close to call.
Many Alexandria precincts went for Northam by high margins: he gained 80 percent or more of the vote in half of the city’s 28 precincts. Overall, Northam won Alexandria by 78.36 percent to Gillespie’s 20.74 percent.
“I’m surprised by the margin,” Wilson said. “At the moment, this is the best case scenario.”
Across town at Ramparts restaurant, the Alexandria Republican City Committee and the Alexandria Young Republicans held a joint watch party. Jerri Ann Henry, chair of the Young Republicans, who had been knocking on doors throughout the Virginia campaign season, said Gillespie’s loss was a hard blow.
“I’ve known Gillespie for years,” Henry said. “It’s hard to put into words how tough a loss this is. That part is unfortunate.”
Henry said, though the results were challenging, she looked at the election as a learning opportunity for the party.
“As a Republican, I’m most interested in lessons we’ve learned. It’s a constant
adjustment,” Henry said. “It’s hard knowing the blood, sweat and tears a lot of these people put into the campaign.”
Michael Lane, vice chair of the Alexandria Republican City Committee, said the loss could also be, in part, attributed to campaign strategy.
“It’s disappointing. We had higher expectations,” Lane said. “It was a race that everyone agreed was going to come down to a get-outto-vote and they had a better approach than we did … We fell short of our turnout expectations, and failure to turn out and vote has consequences.”
Lane said, in the future, the Virginia GOP should focus on party unity, and that both parties should do a better job of persuading voters in the middle.
“As a society, and in Alexandria, we’ve degenerated to get-out-the-vote campaigns as opposed to persuade-the-middle campaigns,” Lane said. “I don’t think that’s good for either political party or for Virginia.”
Sean Lenehan, chair of the Alexandria Republican City Committee, expressed disappointment at the results overall, but said the work could now begin on the next election on the horizon, including the 2018 midterm elections.
“We believe in what we stand for, and what the candidates stand for. Here on
election night, I still like the stance that every single one of our candidates brought.
They all have a history of service to our state and service to our country that I think is amazing,” Lenehan said. “I still know now either one of them would’ve been fantastic for our state.” “We’re hopeful. We’re still excited. We can look forward to next year,” Lenehan continued. “While this is a statewide election, locally, there are a lot of issues that are important to us that we’re going to work on. We’re going to wake up tomorrow and start working.”
At Pork Barrel, Silberberg, Wilson, Pepper and Councilor Paul Smedberg celebrated the win
as the election was officially called. Sheriff Dana Lawhorne and Alexandria Commonwealth’s Attorney Bryan Porter, who were both uncontested in their reelection bids, gave victory speeches.
“We’ve elected Ralph Northam as our governor, Justin Fairfax as our lieutenant governor and Mark Herring as our attorney general,” Porter said in his speech. “Those three people have a thoughtful voice that is all too missing in Washington today.”
Porter thanked Lawhorne, who he attributed with first getting him to the commonwealth’s attorney office, and those gathered.
“I grew up in this city. It’s my privilege to continue to serve each of you,” Porter said.
Some of the individuals gathered offered hopes for Northam’s term as governor.
“I hope he’ll reverse some of the policies that have limited women’s rights and focus on Medicaid expansion,” said West End resident Laura Mandala. Smedberg said he was
particularly encouraged by Democrats’ gains in the House of Delegates.
“Not only did we have a statewide sweep, but, more importantly, we gained House of Delegate seats,” he said. “We may not take the majority, but the seats we gained tonight will make a difference.”
Some, however, were just glad watching the election results didn’t mean a long night.
“I am very, very happy … I am a little surprised. Now I can go home early,” Merritt joked. “This is very exciting. These are men with great integrity. We can all be glad when leaders like that are elected. Now I’m waiting to see how many seats we pick up in the House of Delegates.”