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Virginia Scandals Threaten Democrats' High Election Hopes

With control of the legislature on the line in November, the party could pay a price for the blackface revelations by Virginia's governor and attorney general, and the sexual assault allegations against the lieutenant governor.

Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, center right, speaks to the media on Monday.
(AP/Steve Helber)
Virginia Democrats have thrived in recent years, in large part by touting inclusion when it comes to race and gender. That message is now imperiled by a trio of scandals that have been rocking Richmond. 

On Wednesday, state Attorney General Mark Herring admitted that he had worn blackface while in college. On Saturday, Herring called for Gov. Ralph Northam to resign over his own blackface controversy -- a photo on his medical school yearbook page of one person in blackface and another dressed as a Ku Klux Klan member. Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has been accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 2004.

Fairfax is first in line to be governor, and Herring is second. Regardless of how this still-unfolding drama plays out, the collective problems of the party's top leaders may haunt Democrats in November, when they are hoping to win control of both chambers of the legislature. Republicans hold slim majorities in both the state House and Senate.

"If all three statewide Democratic officials are under a cloud of scandal like this, I don't see how it doesn't have a demoralizing effect on Democratic voters and an energizing effect on Republicans," says Quentin Kidd, director of the Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University in Virginia.

Democrats had been optimistic about their chances to take full control of the state this fall. They need just one Senate seat and two House seats to win control. Virginia has become increasingly blue, with Republicans having lost every statewide election since 2009. In 2017, Virginia Democrats picked up 15 state House seats -- the most in a single year since the 19th century. Looking ahead, a new House redistricting map, which won initial approval from a federal court last month, has the potential to garner the party as many as seven additional seats. 

"If you go back a week, the Democrats were incredibly optimistic about their future in Virginia," says Stephen Farnsworth, director of the University of Mary Washington's Center for Leadership and Media Studies in Virginia. "That enthusiasm has just evaporated as Democrats have watched the equivalent of three train wrecks in one week."

One of the Democrats' central messages -- that Donald Trump lacks the character to lead the country -- has now been diluted by these scandals, says Farnsworth. "That argument is a much harder one to make when the top three elected Democrats in state government are all facing major scandals."

Republicans have been gleefully taking to social media to castigate Democrats for their problems and to accuse them of hypocrisy. In the 2017 race for governor and 2018 race for U.S. Senate, Democratic campaigns painted the GOP candidates as racists, or at least retrograde, for supporting Confederate monuments and taking a hard line on immigration.

"It certainly takes away their moral authority on a whole host of issues," says Republican consultant Chris LaCivita.


Attempts at Damage Control

Nearly every notable statewide and national Democrat called for Northam to resign over the weekend. The governor initially apologized for being in the picture. The next day, he held a news conference and denied being in the photo but admitted to having worn blackface at an event that same year.

Northam is still hoping he can undo the damage. He has considered staying on as governor as an independent and spent part of Wednesday meeting with civil rights leaders. His office circulated a statement from nine of his medical school classmates attesting to his character.

“We fully believe Gov. Ralph Northam is neither of the individuals in those repugnant costumes,” they wrote. “We attended classes with the governor. We socialized with him. We knew him very well."

Once Fairfax appeared to be the presumptive next governor, he faced questions about an alleged sexual assault. Vanessa Tyson, a professor at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., has accused Fairfax of forcing her to perform oral sex in 2004 when both were attending the Democratic National Convention. Fairfax described the sexual encounter as consensual.

On Wednesday, Tyson released a statement detailing her version of the incident, which she described as "horrific."

"What began as consenual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault," she wrote. "After the assault, I suffered from both deep humiliation and shame."

As with Northam's news conference, Fairfax's response has generated its own controversy. 

Fairfax's initial statement said The Washington Post -- which learned of these accusations in 2017 but did not publish a story because it "could not find anyone who could corroborate either version" -- found "significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegations." The newspaper said that is not true. Then Fairfax accused The Post of "smearing" him. 

At a private meeting Monday night, Fairfax reportedly said, "f--k that bitch," in reference to Tyson. That same day, Fairfax hung up on Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, ending a phone conversation meant to clear the air after Fairfax had suggested that Stoney -- a potential rival in the 2021 gubernatorial race -- had leaked Tyson's story.

In an uncanny echo of the sexual assault allegations that erupted during Brett Kavanaugh's Supreme Court confirmation hearings, Fairfax has retained the same law firm Kavanaugh used at that time, while Tyson has retained the firm that represented Christine Blasey Ford.


Where Do Democrats Go From Here?

Fairfax hasn't faced the same drumbeat of calls for his resignation as Northam. The Virginia Democratic Party said the sexual assault accusation should be "taken with profound gravity" but did not urge him to step down.

After Northam and Fairfax, Herring would be next in line to become governor. He had announced a gubernatorial bid before the current controversies emerged, but now his political future is in doubt. Shortly after a tense meeting on Wednesday with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, Herring released a statement admitting that while in college he put on "brown makeup" to attend a party dressed as a rapper.

"That I have contributed to the pain Virginians have felt this week is the greatest shame I have ever felt," Herring said. "In the days ahead, honest conversations and discussions will make it clear whether I can or should continue to serve as attorney general."

If all three statewide officials were to resign, state House Speaker Kirk Cox would become governor. Cox is a Republican, so that is an outcome Democrats will seek to avoid.

"If all three of them stay in [office], they will be horribly hobbled," says LaCivita, the GOP consultant. "They won't be able to raise money [for downballot candidates], and candidates won't be able to take money from them."

It has become seemingly more likely, with Fairfax and Herring now politically damaged, that Northam will tough it out. 

"Northam seems determined to hang on," says Kyle Kondik, managing editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, a political newsletter published by the University of Virginia. "His ability to do so is made easier by the problems that Fairfax and Herring are now having."


Impact on November Elections

Still, it's anyone's guess who will be governor by the time March rolls around -- let alone during the legislative election season this fall.  

"It’s hard to think about events that are nine months ahead in Virginia when things seem to be changing, instead, every nine hours," Kondik says. "This was a crazy story when it just dealt with Northam. Now, the whole Democratic statewide team is damaged."

But LaCivita says Republicans can't count on winning simply by pointing out the flaws of Democratic leaders who won't be on the ballot. Nevertheless, the GOP's odds of maintaining power have improved.

"Republicans were talking about their ability to energize their base," LaCivita says. "In Virginia, this is an off-off year. The only races that are on the ballot are state House and state Senate, so the turnout is extremely low in these races. It was clearly going to be a battle royale, and still will be."

LaCivita suggests that Democrats now face a "tough slog." The filing deadline for legislative candidates is March 21.

It's possible that some potential Democratic candidates will decide to sit this year out, says Farnsworth, the University of Mary Washington political scientist. Maybe some of their donors will wait another cycle to open their checkbooks.

It's also possible -- though it seems unlikely -- that these scandals will largely be forgotten by November.

Either way, Virginia Democrats, who began the year with high hopes, now have to find a way to try to regain momentum at a time when the news continues to get worse for them, potentially alienating groups of voters who are mainstays of their base.

Amid all the uncertainty about the future of the state's leadership, one thing is clear: "This has been an awful week for Virginia," said Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Warner, a former governor of the state.

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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