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Judy Ford Wason Center for Public Policy

Wason Center

February 19, 2019

Still Embroiled in Controversies, Virginia Gears Up for State Legislative Elections

State / Elections

House of Representatives chamber in the Virginia State Capitol building

Virginia’s election of 2017 saw one of the biggest electoral successes for Democrats in recent years, with the party securing the governorship for its third consecutive term, as well as gaining all five statewide elected offices. To onlookers across the country, it appeared that Virginia was embracing a “blue” future, as the state embraced a liberal policy agenda under two consecutive Democratic Party governors. However, this vision of a new Virginia has been complicated by the release of a racist photo on the yearbook page devoted exclusively to Governor Ralph Northam from his time as a medical student at Eastern Virginia Medical School. The photo shows a student dressed in “blackface” makeup posing next to another dressed in a KKK hood, ostensibly as Halloween costumes. Despite issuing a swift statement accepting responsibility for posing in black face, the next day the governor retracted his statement and continues to deny that he is either student featured in the photo. In a press conference shortly after, the governor again denied he was the student in the photo and admitted to posing in blackface once as a teenager in a dance contest where he was impersonating Michael Jackson. Despite calls from his own party’s leadership in the General Assembly as well as the state’s congressional delegation and both the state and federal black caucuses, Governor Northam maintains he intends to finish out his term and legal experts say there is little that can be done to forcibly remove him from office. Pressure for him to step down has lessened some as the state Democratic Party struggles to deal with a sexual assault scandal that has bogged down Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who would assume the governorship should Northam resign. Northam’s scandal also led to a statement from the state’s Attorney General, Mark Herring, admitting that he too dressed in blackface as part of a Halloween costume when he was a teenager in the 1980's.

Virginia’s political crisis showing few signs of abating, and many political reporters and pundits are arguing that Virginia’s racist past is far from being just a memory. As articulated by University of Virginia’s Larry J. Sabato, “This collection of scandals proves beyond a doubt that Virginia has not progressed as far as it thought it has – and it has a past it still hasn’t come to terms with.” In 2006, Senator George F. Allen, who was running for election and simultaneously eyeing a 2006 Republican presidential bid, came under intense national scrutiny for his derogatory comments towards an Indian-American man. The individual was videotaping one of Allen’s campaign events when Allen referred to him as a “macaca,” a racial slur for African-American individuals. Then, in 2017, a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville gained national attention as participants became violent and deadly. Only one year later, Corey Stewart received the 2018 Republican Senate nomination, where he ran a campaign that advocated for stricter immigration laws and vowed to uphold and protect Confederate symbols.

“Virginia really is facing the equivalent of a #MeToo moment on race, where the behavior of people in the Virginia of 30 years ago is running headlong into a very different Virginia of today. Things that were acceptable in the Virginia of a generation ago are immensely unacceptable in the Virginia of today,” argues Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.

Despite the firestorm of racist scandals happening in Virginia right now, Northam is refusing to step down, arguing that he is still capable of leading the Commonwealth as governor. “I took the notes to uphold this office and serve the people of this Commonwealth to the best of my ability. As long as I believe I can effectively fill that task, I intend to continue doing the business of Virginia,” Northam said in a press conference just days after the photo was released.

Interestingly enough, after a week of scandal, Virginia voters appear to be split on whether Governor Northam should step down as a result of his offense. A poll conducted by The Washington Post and Schar School of Public Policy at George Mason University showed that 47 percent of constituents want Northam to step down and 47 percent say that he should remain governor. Among Democrats and Republicans, 57 percent and 42 percent of respondents say that he should not step down, respectively. Additionally, the poll finds that nearly one-third of Virginians think Attorney General Mark Herring should resign, compared to the 60 percent majority that believes he should stay in office.

Notably, Northam pulls a large foundation of support from black Virginians, where 58 percent articulate that he should not step down, compared to the 37 percent that says he should step down. While this seems unusual, it is not wholly surprising that many black Virginians find his actions repugnant yet want him to remain in office; none of the calls for Northam to step down reference him exhibiting racism in 2019. And, throughout his tenure, many black Virginians argue that the Governor has shown interest in advancing minority rights and livelihoods.

While Virginians have communicated their divide on the issue, the refusal by Ralph Northam to step down as governor could hold serious implications for the electoral success of future Democratic candidates in Virginia and across the country – and Democratic leaders have been quick in their efforts to rectify this situation. Prominent leaders wasted no time in voicing their opinion of Northam’s inability to effectively carry on as governor. In a joint statement released just days after the story broke, Sen. Tim Kaine and Sen. Mark Warner, along with Rep. Bobby Scott, called on Northam to resign stating, “We no longer believe he can effectively serve as governor of Virginia and that he must resign.” Northam has also been called to resign by the Democratic Party of Virginia, the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus, President Donald Trump, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, former Vice President Joe Biden, and more. Various 2020 presidential prospects have also called on the governor to step down, including California Sen. Kamala Harris, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, and several others.

Virtually the only person defending Northam is former Virginia congressman, Jim Moran, a Democrat. Moran emerged saying that Northam should be given the chance to redeem himself for his actions, arguing that the merits of Northam’s political career should exempt him from facing a forced resignation. “He asks for a chance to learn from his failings and to prove who he is today. Let’s keep our eyes on the long-term prize and not yield to such a short-term rush to judgement,” said Moran.

However, with little-to-no support from his party, it seems that Governor Northam will be unable to wield any authority in the coming sessions, given how many people have renounced his governorship. As articulated by Democratic Representative A. Donald McEachin, “You can’t govern without a mandate, and all you’re going to do is make things worse for the state.” While some are arguing that there could be redemption for Northam, many Democratic allies are saying that his inability to move the commonwealth forward as one unit will impair the business and agenda of the 2019 General Assembly sessions. While Northam’s actions are not impeachable offenses, he will need to look upon his own moral compass, as well as what’s best for the Commonwealth, when deciding what his future plans will be.

So, what implications does this have for future elections?

With all three state leaders entangled in controversy and scandal, the chance of Democrats maintaining an executive majority in the coming years has decreased significantly. “[Republicans] were facing generational political Armageddon. This all changed in eight days. This is an earthquake. It’s a unique opportunity for Republicans,” said John Fredericks, a conservative radio host and the former chairman of President Trump’s 2016 campaign in Virginia.

At the end of this year, all 140 state legislature seats will be up for reelection. After suffering a notable blow in the 2017 Virginia state elections, the state’s current scandals are giving Republicans a glimmer of hope in curbing the leftward shift of the state. In the Senate, Republicans currently have a two-seat majority advantage. It was predicted that there were four vulnerable Republican seats, compared to the two vulnerable Democratic ones. In the House, it was predicted that Democrats would make significant gains due to a court-ordered redrawing of the state house map which will make several districts currently held by the GOP more competitive for Democrats. This would build on the 17 seats the Democrats gained in the 2017 cycle in the first of the post-Trump Blue Wave elections. Before this scandal, Democrats seem poised to pick up control of both chambers of the Assembly in 2019. “The fact that Ralph Northam is all but certain to be in the governor’s mansion in the fall is going to complicate the elections for Democrats,” said Rachel Bitecofer, Assistant Director of the Wason Center. “Northam is kryptonite on the stump so that will cut off a major fundraising arm for the state party and they will need to find another big name to help their candidates raise money. Northam is also a poison pill because the inarticulate comments he made about medically necessary late-term abortions are going to provide excellent campaign fodder for Republicans. Democrats have more than one reason to want Northam to resign.”

Still, it’s not clear that the scandal will be enough to push voters away from the Democratic Party during a time period when the Republican Party image in Virginia has been damaged by the party’s national brand, particularly on the issue of race. This was further complicated by the party’s nomination of Corey Stewart last year to challenge Democratic incumbent senator Tim Kaine. Stewart was seen as divisive and controversial and underperformed other GOP nominees significantly. The GOP is not well positioned to capitalize on the particular issues plaguing the state’s top Democrats.

The past few weeks of scandal have irreparably altered Virginia’s political climate for the foreseeable future. The previous grievances of Governor Northam, along with his current misgivings, hold serious implications for the future of Virginia’s 2019 General Assembly sessions, 2019 state legislature candidates, and the national Democratic Party. The Judy Ford Wason Center will continue to monitor state and national actions as the scandal continues to unfold and will be conducting an in-depth analysis of the impact of these scandals on the upcoming state legislative races in November.


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