WASHINGTON -- Voters headed to the polls in several states Tuesday to decide races that will determine not only bragging rights but also answers for dilemmas faced by both major parties as they head into a titanic battle for control of Congress in 2018.
Will Trump voters turn out to bolster other Republican candidates as they did the president himself, or is their loyalty limited? Can Democrats harness their base's anger at the president without being consumed by it?
Both Republicans and Democrats were looking most avidly at Virginia's race for governor as a test of their strategies for next year.
Republican Ed Gillespie, a lifetime member of the Republican establishment, reached out to Trump voters in the south and west of the state, trying to force a hybrid alliance between two party factions that warred in 2016. Democrat Ralph Northam was seeking to harness the enthusiasm of the party's leftward activists despite his victory for relative moderation over an activist favorite in the party's primary.
Also drawing attention Tuesday were races for governor of New Jersey and mayor of New York and Boston. In the mayoral races, incumbent Democrats Bill de Blasio and Martin Walsh were heavily favored. Phil Murphy, President Barack Obama's first ambassador to Germany, was expected to win the New Jersey race over incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Christie's lieutenant governor, Kim Guadagno.
In Washington state, a hotly contested state Senate race held the potential of flipping the upper house to Democrats, creating an unbroken line of blue in West Coast legislatures and governor's offices. And in Maine, a referendum on expanding Medicaid could point to a way forward on health care for liberal activists in states with Republican governors.
The national importance of the Virginia race was underscored before dawn on Election Day, when President Donald Trump, traveling in South Korea, launched three tweets on behalf of Gillespie and sharply critical of Northam.
"Ralph Northam will allow crime to be rampant in Virginia. He's weak on crime, weak on our GREAT VETS, Anti-Second Amendment and has been horrible on Virginia economy," Trump said, offering no evidence for the charges. "Vote Ed Gillespie today. Ed Gillespie will totally turn around the high crime and poor economic performance of VA. MS-13 and crime will be gone. Vote today, ASAP!"
As Northam, an Army veteran, has often reminded Virginia voters, the state's unemployment rate in September was 3.7 percent, below the 5.4 percent when Northam became lieutenant governor. While crime rose in Virginia from 2015 to 2016, the incidence of serious crimes remains far below the national average in almost all categories, according to FBI records.
Yet Northam's effort to persuade voters to continue the policies of Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe has been all but drowned out for weeks by a fierce assault by Gillespie on issues meant to inspire turnout by the voters who are more naturally allied with Trump than the establishment Republican candidate.
Gillespie criticized Northam on issues that included Latino gangs, sanctuary cities and the fate of monuments to Confederate figures -- all issues that played on race and replicated Trump's own approach in 2016.
Northam pushed back on the incendiary arguments with less heated appeals on the economy, education and transportation, although he also took fire for an allied Latino group's ad that implied Gillespie supporters were threatening young minority children.
The race at times echoed the presidential contest in a state won last year by Hillary Clinton: a Republican willing to employ brash tactics against a Democrat so low-key that his allies worried voters might respond in kind.
Obama hit that concern hard in a mid-October visit to Richmond intended to encourage turnout by African-American voters.
"Elections matter. Voting matters," he told thousands of supporters. "You can't take anything for granted. You can't sit this one out."
Both sides expressed wary confidence about a race that in the last several weeks remained a toss-up in polls.
The Republican "ground game never left Virginia, despite an unfavorable outcome in 2016," said Rick Gorka, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee.
Republicans and Democrats alike mounted efforts that knocked on millions of doors in person-to-person persuasion, while the state's airwaves blared with advertisements until the last minute, trying to convince a narrowing number of undecided voters.
"Virginia will be the most important bellwether of what the party is doing in 2018," said Keith Brannum, the campaign manager for Elizabeth Guzman, the Democratic candidate in one of several highly contested House of Delegates seats.
"It will be the test of whether the enthusiasm for Democrats can be translated into votes, and translated into an electoral coalition."
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