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Democrat Ralph Northam will be the next governor of Virginia, handing his party a much-needed victory in a closely fought swing state.

AP News declared Mr Northam as the winner of the race shortly after 8pm on Tuesday, with exit polls showing that the former paediatrician and sitting lieutenant-governor performed especially well with voters under the age of 45 — beating his opponent within that demographic by a ratio of two-to-one.

Mr Northam had faced off against Ed Gillespie, a Republican establishment figure who previously served as chair of the Republican National Committee and counsellor to George W Bush in the White House.

While polling had forecast a tight race between Mr Northam and Mr Gillespie, the early-night victory for Mr Northam suggested Donald Trump’s unpopularity may work to Democrats’ advantages as they seek to take back seats in state legislatures, governors’ mansions and seats in the US House of Representatives. 

Mr Northam’s win was one of a series of victories for the Democratic party on Tuesday. In New Jersey, Democrat Phil Murphy was declared his state’s governor following eight years of Republican Chris Christie.

Meanwhile, in New York City, Democrat Bill De Blasio sailed into a second term as the city’s mayor, handily defeating Republican opponent Nicole Malliotakis.

Elsewhere in Virginia, Democratic candidates were on track to pick up at least half-a-dozen new seats in the state legislature, eating in to the Republicans’ majority. Virginia’s next lieutenant-governor and attorney-general will also be Democrats. 

Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, said there had been one key factor that had shaped the good night for Democrats in the state: “Donald Trump, Donald Trump, Donald Trump”.

“This is a good sign for the Democrats in 2018, as long as Trump continues to be unpopular,” he said. “Except for 2013, every Virginia gubernatorial election from 1977 to 2017 has produced a governor of the party opposite to that of the White House. This one was an emphatic result.”

In Virginia, Mr Trump’s approval rating is currently at 35 per cent, according to the Wason Center for Public Policy.

Wary of Mr Trump’s numbers, Mr Gillespie distanced himself from the president during the campaign, embracing some of Mr Trump’s policies on immigration and law enforcement but declining to hold any joint events with the president.

In the run-up to the election, Mr Trump had tweeted his support for the candidate on multiple occasions.

On Tuesday night, however, Mr Trump was quick to throw Mr Gillespie under the bus.

“Ed Gillespie worked hard but did not embrace me or what I stand for,” the president tweeted from South Korea where he is currently on a state visit. “Don’t forget, Republicans won 4 out of 4 House seats, and with the economy doing record numbers, we will continue to win, even bigger than before!”

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