RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam promised Wednesday to ride a wave of voter dissatisfaction with President Donald Trump to turn the Old Dominion into a state where gun laws are stricter, the environment is cleaner and cities have greater leeway to take down Confederate statues.
The Democratic governor pledged swift action on liberal policies a day after his party took control of the statehouse for the first time in more than two decades.
“Virginia is blue. I want everyone to know that,” Northam said.
However, the moderate governor also signaled he was not inclined to pursue any policies that might hurt the state’s business friendly reputation.
Suburban voters turned out in big numbers Tuesday to back Democratic candidates, continuing a trend of once GOP-friendly suburbs turning blue. This is the third election in a row in which Virginia Democrats made significant gains since Trump was elected.
Overall, more than twice as many people in Virginia voted in the state legislative races on Tuesday than in the last similar election four years ago when all statehouse seats were on the ballot. A little less than 1.5 million voters went to the polls in 2015. On Tuesday, more than 3.5 million voters cast ballots, according to Associated Press elections research.
The Democrats’ big win was a warning sign for the president and Republicans ahead of next year’s election. Higher-educated and more affluent suburban voters — particularly women — have revolted against Trump’s GOP both in Virginia and nationwide. The suburbs leaned Republican in the past but have become a key battleground amid shifting demographics and Trump’s turbulent presidency.
Of the four states with legislative elections this year, Virginia was the only one where control of the statehouse was up for grabs. Republicans lost their slim majorities in both the state House and Senate.
Northam, who earlier this year was nearly forced from office over a blackface scandal, savored the victory as a vote of affirmation for his tenure as governor and a chance to pass legacy-making legislation on a wide variety of issues.
Now, Northam has the opportunity to become one of the most consequential governors in years — an almost unbelievable turnaround for a politician who had essentially been left for dead.
Democrats have a laundry list of long-sought priorities that Republicans have stymied for years but could become law when the next legislative session starts in January.
Stricter gun laws are at the top of Northam’s list, including mandating universal background checks and banning military-style assault weapons.
The governor and his allies said the Democratic gains were largely powered by voters who wanted to see commonsense gun laws after a mass shooting in Virginia Beach this summer.
“It’s going to be a new day,” said Brian Moran, secretary of public safety and homeland security in the Northam administration.
Gun-rights advocates and Republicans promised stiff resistance, noting that former New York City Michael Bloomberg’s gun control group was one of the biggest financial backers of Democratic candidates this year.
“As if Gov. Northam’s legacy of ineptitude wasn’t enough, Virginians are about to experience life under a distant tycoon’s thumb,” the NRA said in a statement.
Other issues Northam said he’d support seeing include passage of the Equal Rights Amendment , which would make Virginia the 38th and final state needed to ban discrimination on the basis of sex, explicitly enshrining equality for women in the U.S. Constitution. Thirty-seven states have ratified it; supporters say having 38 would meet the constitutional threshold for approval.
Northam also said he’d favor changing a state law that bars removing war memorials. That would allow localities to remove Confederate statues, a flashpoint issue in the state that was home to the capital of the Confederacy.
Northam was more evasive when asked about policy proposal some of his party’s more liberal members have championed, such as providing universal health care or strengthening the power of labor unions. The governor said one of his “proudest” moments was when CNBC ranked Virginia the best state to do business earlier this year.
Northam said he supports raising the minimum wage from the current level of $7.25 an hour, but indicated he’s not in a rush.
“To what level we get and how fast we get there, I can’t tell you but we’re certainly open, and I’ll support raising the minimum wage,” Northam said.
Virginia’s elections drew several high-profile visits from 2020 presidential hopefuls, including former Vice President Joe Biden, as well as current Vice President Mike Pence.
Trump tried to rally Republicans via Twitter but stayed out of Virginia, a state he lost in 2016.