Trump Overshadows State Scandals Ahead of Virginia Elections

CORRECTION: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that several women accused Fairfax of raping them in college. Only one woman accused him of sexual assault in college. A second accuser’s claims pertain to an alleged incident in 2004, after Fairfax graduated college. Courthouse News regrets the error.

CHESTERFIELD, Va. (CN) – On a balmy summer afternoon at Harry G. Daniel Park a few miles south of Richmond, Virginia’s Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox handed out hot dogs to his new constituents.

Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox, R-Colonial Heights, recites the Pledge of Allegiance during a cookout in July 2019. (CNS Photo/Brad Kutner)

Calling himself the “world’s biggest hot dog fan,” Cox hosted the July event, equipped with a bounce house and DJ. He’s been in the Virginia House of Delegates for 30 years, but thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court striking what it considered an illegal racial gerrymander earlier this year, his once reliably red district was redrawn to include a swath of more diverse voters.

The Friday afternoon cookout was part of his effort to reach out to the new voting block.

“I’m trying to tell people how much we accomplished,” he said between hot dog bites and handshakes with old and new faces. “With all the scandals, a lot of people didn’t hear what we did.”

The scandals he was talking about were no normal blip in the news cycle.

In the midst of an already contentious legislative session, after Democrats had gained 15 seats in a “blue wave” election, a college yearbook photo emerged in February allegedly showing Democratic Governor Ralph Northam in blackface.

A state with a history of court fights over civil war statues and a violent white nationalist rally two years ago, Virginia faced another race-related setback when Democratic Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to wearing blackface in college.

And finally, around the same time, two women came forward and accused Democratic Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, which he has denied. Law enforcement agencies have not initiated any investigations despite Fairfax’s repeated requests to clear his name.

State Republicans, led by Cox, pounced. After the last election left the once reliably red state less purple and more blue, many saw the scandals in the Northam administration as a chance to regain power.

But a poll released Monday by the Wason Center for Public Policy paints a dire picture for state Republicans and puts Democratic control of all three branches of state government well within reach for the first time in decades, despite the triple threat the party faced earlier this year.

“Northam scandals are a useful tool for Republicans, but it won’t be that useful,” Stephen Farnsworth, professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, said in a phone interview.

Farnsworth said the real issue in this year’s race, which will see both chambers of the Legislature up for grabs, is President Donald Trump.

“The continuing nature of Trump’s scandals is the issue,” he said, adding that the constant nature of the president’s controversies have overshadowed local scandals.

Monday’s poll backs that up, showing Democrats with a 13-point advantage over Republicans on a generic ballot. A majority of Virginia voters said Democrats should control the General Assembly, and Trump’s approval rating in the state stands at 37%.

Shaun Kenney, former executive director of the Virginia Republican Party, admitted he too had little hope for his party this year. He called the early momentum and eventual drop-off of the Democratic scandals the “story that never was.”

“Northam survived,” he said in a phone interview. “When the scandal breaks you think the Democrats are going to eat each other alive. But Herring, Fairfax and Northam have all survived and Republicans can’t seem to get any oxygen as long as Trump keeps being himself.”

Kenney said November’s election, much like the 2017 race that saw Northam win the governorship and 15 Democrats nearly take control of the House, is just as much about “the orange man in the White House” now as it was then.

“Democrats are speaking to issues while Republicans are still dealing with who won the 2016 election,” he said.

Virginia Republicans have also had their own setbacks.

Delegate Nick Freitas, a rising star in the GOP nationally, failed to get paperwork in on time and his name will not be on the ballot, leaving his deeply red district in limbo. Forced to run a write-in campaign, he’s taken in tons of money – including $500,000 from Richard Uihlein, an Illinois-based conservative donor – to help support what Kenney called “the state’s largest spelling bee” to make sure voters spell his name correctly on the ballot.

Meanwhile, Republican Senator Amanda Chase, who made headlines for championing transparency at the General Assembly by getting committee votes recorded for the first time, stumbled numerous times.

It started with berating a police officer for not letting her park near the Capitol building, an incident that was captured on video. Her county GOP then booted her from the party after more disputes with local law enforcement were brought to light.

“Democrats are busy fighting over contested seats while the Republicans are doing what’s easiest, knocking off other Republicans,” Kenney said.

Still, Kenney wonders what will happen to Virginia, which often tops “best states to do business in” lists, when Democrats come to power with more progressive agendas.

“We’re holding a referendum on members of the White House and the policy consequences are coming after the fact,” he said.

Cox hopes that business-first message will sway his new and old constituents in the 66th District.

But those business issues appear to have taken a back seat to social concerns. Monday’s Wason Center poll shows things Republicans have long opposed, like looser marijuana and abortion laws and tighter restrictions on guns, are highly popular among the state’s impassioned voters.

“Questions on gun control, health care, minimum wage, abortion and other topics show voters focused on both national and state issues, and significantly more likely to vote for candidates who support Democratic Party positions,” the Wason Center said.

All 140 seats in the Legislature will be decided when Virginians go to the polls Nov. 5.

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