WASHINGTON (CN) – Nearly a week into a public-relations crisis threatening the three Democratic-held branches of Virginia government, reflexive calls for resignations appear to have given way to political self-preservation.
“Speculation that all 3 statewide VA Dem officeholders will resign is overwrought,” Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, tweeted Thursday. “One or more will survive. VA Dems won in an anti-Trump landslide in 2017. They’re not going to turn government over to a pro-Trump GOP House Speaker, who’s next-in-line to be Governor.”
Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox would be next in line if Virginia sees the resignations of its top three officials, Governor Ralph Northam, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring.
While Northam and Herring have both been dogged by admissions about their experimentation with blackface in the ’80s, Fairfax is accused of sexually assaulting a woman in 2004. Race has been a dominant theme of the controversy: both Northam and Herring are white, while Fairfax and his accuser are black.
Sensing blood in the water, President Donald Trump posted about the melee this morning in a burst of tweets that otherwise focused on his claim to be the target of a Democratic witch hunt.
“Democrats at the top are killing the Great State of Virginia,” Trump wrote. “If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken. Virginia will come back HOME Republican) in 2020!” (Spelling and punctuation in original.)
Repudiations of Northam from allies and foes alike had been widespread after a 1984 yearbook from the governor’s medical school days surfaced on Feb. 1. On one page of the yearbook, among several pictures of Northam, is a picture of a man in blackface, standing beside another in a Ku Klux Klan hood.
Northam initially apologized for appearing in the photo, but later denied that he was either of the costumed men. He did admit, however, to using shoe polish around the same time to dress up as Michael Jackson for a dance competition.
As new scandals began this week to embroil Fairfax and Herring, however, several prominent Democrats have begun scaling back their calls for Northam’s resignation.
“When the politics are bad — and they’re bad — and everything else sucks, as it does now, just follow the principles,” said Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat who was the 2016 running mate of Hillary Clinton. “Just ask, ‘What is the right way to treat people?’ And that actually makes it clearer.”
Virginia Republicans have not made it through the scandal unscathed. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment was pressed on revelations that he edited a yearbook for the Virginia Military Institute in 1968 that features numerous racial slurs and images of white men in blackface.
Norment, a Republican who represents James City County, declined to comment on the yearbook Thursday as he entered a Republican Caucus meeting.
Republicans hold both chambers of the Virginia Legislature, but with a one-person lead. The state has not elected a Republican governor since Bob McDonnell in 2010. Just days after Democrat Terry McAuliffe took the office in 2014, McDonnell was indicted in 2014 on federal corruption charges.
In urban centers to the north around D.C., and in the central and eastern parts surrounding Richmond and Norfolk, meanwhile Virginia has seen its Democratic population on the rise thanks to a growing federal workforce and emergence as an immigration hub.
In 2016, Trump lost Virginia to Clinton by about 5 points, and the statewide election that saw Northam rise to power in 2017 also saw the birth of the “blue wave,” a term used to describe the massive number of Democrats, often women, who beat Republican incumbents in Virginia and then around the country in 2018.
The country will not need to wait long to see how the scandals facing Virginia Democrats impact elections: all 100 state House seats and 40 state Senate seats are up for grabs this November.
And with the state’s electoral map ruled to be a racist gerrymander, statewide redistricting is set to give Democrats a new hope of overtaking every branch of the state government by 2020.