By Letitia Stein and Joseph Ax
(Reuters) - Democrats claimed historic gains in Virginia's statehouse and flipped Republican-held seats in other local races across the United States on Tuesday, in the party's first big wave of victories since Republican Donald Trump's surprise White House win a year ago.
A ticket filled with candidates making their first bids for elected office propelled the party to a 16-seat gain in the Virginia House of Delegates, the state party said, its largest pickup in at least a century.
Democrats also held onto the Virginia governor's mansion and celebrated coast-to-coast victories in off-year elections that could foreshadow the mood of the national electorate heading into the November 2018 elections, when control of the U.S. Congress will be at stake.
With several races in Virginia still too close to call, the enormity of the down-ballot gains in the only state to hold competitive statewide elections this year shocked even party loyalists.
"This is beyond our wildest expectations, to be honest," Catherine Vaughan, co-founder and chief executive of Flippable, one of a number of new startup progressive groups working at the grassroots level to rebuild the party, said in a telephone interview. "People wanted the opportunity to win again and to fight for their values."
In the governor's race, Democratic Lieutenant Governor Ralph Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie. The unsuccessful candidate had employed Trump-style campaign tactics that highlighted divisive issues such as immigration but did not have the president join him on the campaign trail.
Victories from Washington state to Georgia provided momentum for national Democrats desperate to turn grassroots resistance to Trump into wins after losing four special congressional elections earlier this year.
First-time Democratic candidate Manka Dhingra flipped a seat in a Washington state Senate race, giving Democrats full control over state government. Like many of the victorious statehouse candidates, her political awakening began with Trump's victory over experienced Democratic politician Hillary Clinton.
Voters also replaced a Republican governor in New Jersey with a Democrat and increased the party's majorities in the state legislature.
In Georgia, Democrats picked up three seats in special state legislative elections. Republicans still hold majorities in the legislature.
Further down the ballot, Democrats captured the mayor's office in New Hampshire's largest city, Manchester, while the Democratic mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida, Rick Kriseman, beat a former Republican mayor.
Democrats also notched a win in Maine, where voters approved a referendum to expand Medicaid coverage for the poor and disabled under the Affordable Care Act, rebuking Republican Governor Paul LePage, who had vetoed similar measures.
Election analysts said the gains suggest Democrats have a good chance of retaking the U.S. House of Representatives next year. Republicans currently control both the House and Senate.
"You can't really look at tonight's results and conclude that Democrats are anything other than the current favorites to pick up the U.S. House in 2018," Dave Wasserman, who analyzes U.S. House and statehouse races for the nonpartisan Cook Political Report, said on Twitter.
Virginia's election, he added, was nothing short of a "tidal wave."
(Additional reporting by Ian SimpsonEditing by Jonathan Oatis)