Democrats win governor's races in Virginia, New Jersey

WASHINGTON, Nov 7 (Reuters) - Democrat Ralph Northam won a bitter race for Virginia governor on Tuesday, beating a Republican who embraced some of President Donald Trump's combative tactics and issues in a potential preview of next year's midterm election battles.

Northam, the state's lieutenant governor, overcame a barrage of attack ads by Republican Ed Gillespie that hit the soft-spoken Democrat on divisive issues such as immigration, gang crime and Confederate statues.

The Northam victory in a state that Democrat Hillary Clinton won by 5 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election was a boost for national Democrats who were desperate to turn grassroots enthusiasm to resist Trump into election victories.

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Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam
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Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam
ALEXANDRIA, VA - May 21: Democratic candidate for Governor of Virginia, Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam takes part in a candidate forum put on by Americans for Responsible Solutions at the Hilton Alexandria Old Town on Sunday May 21, 2017 in Alexandria, VA. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Barack Obama campaigns in support of Virginia Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, Democratic candidate for governor, at a rally with supporters in Richmond, Virginia, U.S. October 19, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Virginia Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam, who is campaigning to be elected as the state's governor, and his wife Pam, cast their ballots at the East Ocean View Community Center in Norfolk, Virginia, U.S. November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Julia Rendleman
FAIRFAX, VA - APRIL 29: Tom Perriello, left, shakes hands with Ralph Northam at the start of the event. Virginia Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates, Ralph Northam and Tom Perriello held their first debate on Saturday, April 29, 2017 at Lanier Middle School in Fairfax, VA. (Photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
ARLINGTON, VA - MARCH 08: Virginia Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam visits Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport to visit with airport workers on Wednesday March 08, 2017 in Arlington, VA. (Photo by Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 25: Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, cheer on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa., on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, July 25, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Ralph Northam (R) is sworn in as Virginia's lieutenant governor by retired Judge Glen Tyler in Richmond, Virginia, January 11, 2014. The ceremony marks the first time in a quarter century that Democrats will hold all three of the state's top elective posts: governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general. REUTERS/Mike Theiler (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS)
FALLS CHURCH, VA - OCTOBER 19: Hillary Rodham Clinton, center right in red, stands with the Democratic ticket as she endorses Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, far right, at a Women for Terry rallyon October, 19, 2013 in Falls Church, VA. Pictured from left, Sen Mark Herring, Sen. Ralph Northam, Clinton, and McAuliffe. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
UNITED STATES - JULY 25: Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, left, and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, take a selfie on the floor of the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa., on the first day of the Democratic National Convention, July 25, 2016. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
ARLINGTON, VA - MAY 2: Ralph Northam greets supporters in front of the venue as progressive and labor groups from across the Commonwealth host a forum for him and fellow candidate Tom Perriello to discuss Virginia's 2017 Governor's race on May, 02, 2017 in Arlington, VA. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Virginia Democratic governor-elect Terry McAuliffe (R) celebrates with lieutenant governor-elect Ralph Northam (L) at their election night victory rally in Tyson's Corner, Virginia November 5, 2013. McAuliffe defeated Republican candidate Ken Cuccinelli in today's governor's election in Virginia. REUTERS/Gary Cameron (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)
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Democrats had already lost four special congressional elections earlier this year.

In a sign of the high stakes, Trump took a break from his Asia visit to send tweets and record messages on behalf of Gillespie, a former chairman of the national party. Trump had endorsed Gillespie but not campaigned with him.

The Virginia race highlighted a slate of state and local elections that also included a governor's race in New Jersey, where Democrat Phil Murphy, a former investment banker and ambassador to Germany, defeated Republican Kim Guadagno for the right to succeed Republican Chris Christie.

Murphy had promised to be a check on Trump in Democratic-leaning New Jersey, and Guadagno, the lieutenant governor, was hampered by her association with the unpopular Christie.

In Virginia, Democrats had worried that if Gillespie won, Republicans would see it as a green light to emphasize cultural issues in their campaigns for next year's elections, when all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 33 of the U.S. Senate's 100 seats come up for election. Republicans now control both chambers.

Voters in Arlington County - a Democratic stronghold bordering Washington - connected the election to national politics.

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Democrat Phil Murphy
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Democrat Phil Murphy
NEWARK, NJ - OCTOBER 19: Democratic candidate Phil Murphy, who is running against Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno for the governor of New Jersey , speaks at a rally on October 19, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey. Murphy was later joined by former President Barack Obama This is Obama's first return to the campaign trail to stump for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia as they prepare for next month's elections. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
NEWARK, NJ - OCTOBER 19: Former U.S. President Barack Obama (right) stands on stage with Democratic candidate Phil Murphy, who is running against Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno for the governor of New Jersey, on October 19, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey. In Obama's first return to the campaign trail, the former president is stumping for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia as they prepare for next month's elections. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
PARAMUS, NJ - OCTOBER 24: Democratic candidate Phil Murphy, who is running for the governor of New Jersey speaks to attendees during a rally on October 24, 2017 in Paramus, New Jersey. The gubernatorial election of 2017 will take place on November 7, where Democratic candidate Phil Murphy and Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno lead the polls in the race to succeed Chris Christie as New Jersey's governor. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)
ASBURY PARK, NJ - NOVEMBER 07: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy attends a news conference with son Sam after voting on election day November 7, 2017 in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Murphy and Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno are the two major party candidates vying to succeed term-limited Gov. Chris Christie. (Photo by Bobby Bank/Getty Images)
ASBURY PARK, NJ - NOVEMBER 07: Democratic gubernatorial candidate Phil Murphy attends a news conference with his wife Tammy Murphy after voting on election day November 7, 2017 in Asbury Park, New Jersey. Murphy and Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno are the two major party candidates vying to succeed term-limited Gov. Chris Christie. (Photo by Bobby Bank/Getty Images)
Democratic candidate Phil Murphy, who is running against Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno for the governor of New Jersey , speaks at a rally on October 19, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey. Murphy was later joined by former President Barack Obama This is Obama's first return to the campaign trail to stump for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia as they prepare for next month's elections.(Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Barack Obama walks on stage in support of Democratic candidate Phil Murphy, who is running against Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno for the governor of New Jersey, on October 19, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey. In Obama's first return to the campaign trail, the former president is stumping for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia as they prepare for next month's elections. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Phil Murphy, the Democratic Party nominee for Governor of New Jersey, arrives to vote in Middletown, New Jersey, U.S., November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Phil Murphy, a candidate for governor of New Jersey, speaks during the First Stand Rally in Newark, N.J., U.S. January 15, 2017. REUTERS/Stephanie Keith
Former Vice President of the U.S. Joe Biden shakes hands with Phil Murphy, a candidate for Governor of New Jersey during a political rally in Newark, New Jersey, U.S., October 12, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz
A Muslim congregation attending Eid al-Fitr prayers and celebrations are addressed by Phil Murphy, a gubernatorial candidate, at a park in South Brunswick Township, New Jersey, U.S., on June 25, 2017. REUTERS/Amr Alfiky
PARAMUS, NJ - OCTOBER 24: Former president Bill Clinton (C) greets to attendees next Democratic candidate Phil Murphy, (R) who is running for the governor of New Jersey during a rally on October 24, 2017 in Paramus, New Jersey. The gubernatorial election of 2017 will take place on November 7, where Democratic candidate Phil Murphy and Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno lead the polls in the race to succeed Chris Christie as New Jersey's governor. (Photo by Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images)
Former U.S. President Barack Obama (L), Sheila Oliver (C), Democratic candidate for Lt Governor walk on stage in support of Democratic candidate Phil Murphy (R), who is running against Republican Lt. Gov. Kim Guadagno for the governor of New Jersey, on October 19, 2017 in Newark, New Jersey. In Obama's first return to the campaign trail, the former president is stumping for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia as they prepare for next month's elections. (Photo by Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Candidate for New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy delivers remarks to an audience in Mount Laurel, NJ on August 15, 2017. (Photo by Kyle Mazza/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
MONTCLAIR, NJ - SEPTEMBER 23: SiriusXM's Dean Obeidallah Hosts A Town Hall Event With Phil Murphy, Democratic Nominee For Governor Of New Jersey, on September 23, 2017 in Montclair, New Jersey. (Photo by Paul Zimmerman/Getty Images for SiriusXM)
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'GILLESPIE IS THE SWAMP'

"Trump talks about draining the swamp, but Gillespie kind of is the swamp," said Nick Peacemaker, who works in marketing and considered himself a Republican until Trump won the party's presidential nomination.

Peacemaker said Gillespie seemed to shift closer to Trump's policies after securing the Republican gubernatorial nomination.

Retired librarian Diane Morton voted for Northam, in part, because she is highly opposed to Trump.

"I am appalled by what is happening in our country right now," she said after casting her ballot at an elementary school.

Lee Hernandez, who works in finance, voted for Gillespie because he found the Republican's economic message persuasive.

Hernandez said he found Northam's campaign message "a really big turnoff" because of the emphasis on keeping Virginia in Democratic hands.

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Republican Ed Gillespie
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Republican Ed Gillespie
Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia Ed Gillespie speaks during a campaign event at the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce in Tysons, Virginia, U.S., October 26, 2017. Picture taken October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
ABINGDON, VA - OCTOBER 14: U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, left, points to gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie, R-VA, during a campaign rally at the Washington County Fairgrounds on October 14, 2017 in Abingdon, Virginia. Virginia voters head to the polls on Nov. 7. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia Ed Gillespie speaks during a campaign event at the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce in Tysons, Virginia, U.S., October 26, 2017. Picture taken October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Republican Party contender Ed Gillespie, who is campaigning to be elected as Virginia's governor, greets supporters during a rally in Chesapeake, Virginia, U.S. November 6, 2017. REUTERS/Julia Rendleman
Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia Ed Gillespie gestures to supporters after voting at Washington Mill Elementary School in Alexandria, Virginia, U.S., November 7, 2017. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein
Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia Ed Gillespie arrives for a campaign event at the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce in Tysons, Virginia, U.S., October 26, 2017. Picture taken October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
SPRINGFIELD, VA - November, 4: Ed Gillespie campaigns for the upcoming election at the Accotink Academy in Springfield, VA, November 4, 2017. Ed Gillespie is the Republican nominee for governor of Virginia, running against Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam (D). (Astrid Riecken For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
FAIRFAX, VIRGINIA - OCTOBER 26: Republican gubernatorial nominee Ed Gillespie, speaks to the media during a press conference at the Fairfax County Government Center on Thursday, October 26, 2017 in Fairfax, Virginia. Gillespie was joined by attorney general nominee John Adams and other republican leaders. (Photo by Pete Marovich For The Washington Post via Getty Images)
MCLEAN, VA - SEPTEMBER 19: Gubernatorial debate between Republican candidate Ed Gillespie, left, and Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, Democrat, on September, 19, 2017 in McLean, VA. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
ABINGDON, VA - OCTOBER 14: Gubernatorial candidate Ed Gillespie, R-VA, and his wife Cathy during a campaign rally at the Washington County Fairgrounds on October 14, 2017 in Abingdon, Virginia. Virginia voters head to the polls on Nov. 7. (Photo by Sara D. Davis/Getty Images)
MCLEAN, VA - SEPTEMBER 19: Republican candidate Ed Gillespie makes his opening statement during his debate with Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, Democrat, on September, 19, 2017 in McLean, VA. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Republican candidate for Governor of Virginia Ed Gillespie speaks during a campaign event at the Northern Virginia Chamber of Commerce in Tysons, Virginia, U.S., October 26, 2017. Picture taken October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
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Democratic strategist Dane Strother said: "Gillespie's ads played on every fear and dark impulse, and if we lose, we are going to see a lot more of that."

Gillespie has said his policies and plans to bolster Virginia's economy helped narrow the polling gap.

But some voters said they came to support him after seeing an ad that an outside pro-Northam group aired - and then quickly took down - depicting a white man chasing down minority children in a pickup truck with a Confederate flag and a Gillespie sticker.

Describing the ad as racist, Pete Shinnamon, a retired manufacturer's representative, said it bolstered his decision not to vote for Northam.

"That did me in," he said after casting his ballot in Hanover County, a Republican stronghold. "We've really sunk to a low level."

In local races across the country, Democratic Mayors Bill de Blasio in New York and Marty Walsh in Boston were expected to cruise to re-election, while voters were picking mayors in Detroit, Atlanta, Seattle and Charlotte, North Carolina.

(Additional reporting by Ginger Gibson and Gary Robertson; Writing by Lisa Lambert and John Whitesides; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Peter Cooney)

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