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Ralph Northam’s Virginia win is a balm for jittery Democrats

Virginia Gov.-elect, Ralph Northam speaks during a news conference at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., Wednesday, Nov. 8, 2017. Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie in Tuesday’s election. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Ralph Northam vaulted into the national spotlight Tuesday with a thunderous victory in Virginia’s race for governor, instantly becoming a hero of the anti-Trump movement and a balm for jittery Democrats.

He convincingly won the closely watched race, delivering his party’s first major victory since Republican President Donald Trump was elected a year ago. It was a morale boost for a party beset by recent infighting over the 2016 presidential election.

“What this message was yesterday that Virginia sent not only to this country, but to this world, is that the divisiveness, the hatred, the bigotry, the politics that is tearing this country apart, that’s not the United States of America that people love,” Northam said at a news conference Wednesday.

The low-key physician who preaches pragmatism over populism with a strong Southern twang is an unlikely face of the resistance. And his campaign was a frequent target for Beltway pundits and liberal activists who fretted about his ability to mobilize voters.

But Northam said his doubters missed the big picture: that voters unhappy with Trump responded well to a former Army doctor and pediatric neurologist who has a solid record championing progressive causes.

“I just remind people that you can still get a lot of things done with treating people with civility,” Northam said in an interview Wednesday with The Associated Press.

He also said voters liked his focus on health care, jobs and education, along with a record of finding bipartisan agreements on potentially thorny issues like smoking bans in restaurants.

Northam’s nearly 9 point win over Republican Ed Gillespie, along with large Democratic gains in Virginia’s state House and in other races around the country, made Democrats jubilant over their prospects in next year’s midterm elections.

But Northam didn’t always inspire that kind of enthusiasm and was sometimes an uneven campaigner. He backpedaled on his level of urgency for removing Confederate monuments and struggled to clarify his positions so-called “sanctuary cities,” which limit their involvement with federal law enforcement efforts.

One liberal group insisted Northam needed help with minority voters and injected last-minute drama with a controversial ad of a Gillespie supporter trying to run down minority children with a pickup truck.

But Northam and his supporters said those hiccups were overblown.

“At the end of the day, it didn’t matter,” said Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who cannot seek a second term and was one of Northam’s biggest cheerleaders. “People are now unified.”

Northam said he’s eager to show how his party can make similar gains around country with a united front.

“We have a large tent, and we have a very diverse society and we’ve always welcomed people to our party,” Northam said. “So I want to work very hard in the next four years to expand our base.”

But he said his focus will be in Virginia, where Democrats’ unexpectedly strong showing in House races has given Northam new opportunities to push through long-stalled Democratic priorities like expanding Medicaid coverage to the poor.

Northam, who often campaigned on his ability to work with Republicans, indicated Wednesday he’s eager to make deals to make it happen.

“If we need to call it a different name, that’s fine, if people need to walk away from the table feeling like they’ve gotten something for their districts, that’s fine with me,” he said.