RICHMOND, Va. (CN) — A new poll shows Democrats hold a slight lead in Virginia’s upcoming state House and Senate races despite blackface and sexual assault allegations that have shaken the state.
The numbers offer bad news for President Trump and his party weeks after the president was said to have set his sights on the once-reliably Republican state.
The poll, released Tuesday by the Wason Center for Public Policy in Norfolk’s Christopher Newport University, shows Democrats leading by 43% to 39%, with all 100 House and 40 Senate seats up for grabs this fall. Democrats have not held controlled state’s House since 1998, but in 2017, a year after Trump took office, they flipped 15 seats.
The state Senate has been more evenly split, with Republicans mostly in control since 1996.
With northern Virginia particularly becoming more Democratic, Democrats like their chances, after a court-ordered redrawing of district legislative maps which had been gerrymandered for Republicans.
Complicating that trend, however, was photographic evidence of the state’s Democratic Governor Ralph Northam wearing blackface in his college yearbook. Within days the state’s Attorney General Mark Herring, also a Democrat, acknowledged he too wore blackface during a college party.
Then reports of sexual assault allegations against the state’s young Democratic Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax re-emerged. All three officials have resisted calls from in and outside of their party to resign.
Yet the Wason poll shows a majority of Virginians do not think they should resign, though all three are facing damaged approval ratings, with Fairfax’s disapproval rating going from 13% in December to 39%.
But all this bad news at the top of the ticket — and not on the ballot this year — might not be enough to drag down those running. The Wason poll also gauged what issues each party is most concerned with and Democrats took the lead in every category — women, minorities, the poor, the middle class — except one: men.
Only 50 percent of self-identified Republicans said their party cares about black people.
“[Republicans] seem to acknowledge that their own party has an issue with that demographic group,” said Dr. Rachel Bitecofer, the Wason Center assistant director and director of the poll. She said between this issues-related survey and Trump’s stagnant approval rating — 44 percent today — Democrats continue to have the wind at their backs.
“While modest, any advantage here is significant because turnout in the pure state legislative cycle is always very low,” said Bitecofer. She said Democrats have a history of poor turnout in election years with no statewide or national seat on the ticket, but her new polling numbers show 85% of self-identified Democrats plan to vote, topping Republicans by 3 points.
“If Democrats increase their participation rate significantly over the 2015 cycle [the last year when only state-level races were on the ballot] it could have a tremendous impact, as we saw in both 2017 and 2018,” Bitecofer said.
But as energized as Democrats may be, Republicans have more political ammo in their belts. Northam’s blackface photo was unearthed after the governor defended a Democratic legislative effort that sought to reduce the number of doctors needed to approve a third-term abortion.
Video of Democratic Delegate Kathy Tran defending her bill by saying it would allow doctors to end a pregnancy up until delivery went viral in Republican circles. The video made its way to President Trump, who mentioned Northam in his State of the Union Address claiming, inaccurately, “we had the case of the governor of Virginia where he basically stated he would execute a baby after birth.”
While opposition to abortion has long been a keystone of the Republican Party, and access to the procedure has similarly been key to Democrats, the Wason poll found most Virginians lie more toward the middle, with a plurality of 32% seeking neither fewer nor more restrictions.
“We’re going to have the two parties hovering on the extremes,” said Bitecofer, adding that both parties could face problems if they push too hard on the topic. “Republicans will argue Democrats want to kill live babies … and Democrats have Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List, who are very strident on access. … They have to be pretty militant about it.”
Virginians go to the polls on Nov. 5.