Despite Scandals, Virginia Democrats Appear Well Set For 2019 Elections

Virginia Democrats had a good fundraising quarter despite the scandals enveloping their top three officeholders.

It’s been several months now since scandals of various types enveloped each of Virginia’s top three statewide leaders. It began, of course, with the seemingly out-of-the-blue discovery of the yearbook page of Virginia Governor Ralph Northam from his final year at the Eastern Virginia Medical School from 1984 which includes, along with pictures of Northam and others, a picture that depicts one person in blackface and another person wearing Ku Klux Klan garb. In his initial response to the news, Governor Northam apologized for the photograph and appeared to admit that he was one of the two people depicted in that photograph, although he did not say which one. This led a plethora of statewide and national Democrats to call for his resignation, something which at least initially seemed as though it would happen. Within twenty-four hours after the release of the report, though, Northam held a press conference in which he denied being either of the people in the photo although he did admit to having once darkened his skin in connection with a Michael Jackson impersonation he performed in San Antonio later in 1984. This flip-flop and the general weirdness of that Saturday press conference did not satisfy critics and led more of the Commonwealth’s top Democrats to call on him to step aside, a move that he has so far not taken.

Shortly after all of that transpired, Virginia politics has been thrown into further chaos thanks to, among other things, charges of sexual assault against Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax, who would succeed Northam were he to resign and the admission by Attorney General Mark Herring that he too had donned blackface when he was 19 as part of an impersonation of 80s rapper Kurtis Blow. Later in the week, the dumpster fire in Richmond took on a bipartisan tone when Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment admitted that he had been the editor of the yearbook at the Virginia Military Institute when several photographs of students in blackface were published in 1968, just months before the institution admitted its first African-American student. While state and national Democrats did speak out against Northam and Fairfax, and to some extent Herring. there has been no move to remove them from office and it doesn’t appear likely that such a move will be coming in the future, especially since the state legislature ended its regular session weeks ago and the grounds for impeaching any of these men under the relevant provision in Virginia’s Constitution appears to be rather weak. Additionally, polling in the Old Dominion has not shown any signs that the public wants action such as impeachment. For example, Washington Post poll released not long after the scandals broke showed Virginia voters were evenly split on whether or not Governor Northam should resign, and also showed that larger numbers of voters believed that Lt. Governor Fairfax and Attorney General Herring should not step aside. These results are generally the same in two polls released near the end of February. Given this, there’s little incentive for politicians on either side of the aisle to act.

At this point, the biggest question about the events of February is what, if any, impact the events will have on the 2019 midterm elections. During those elections, the entire state legislature will be up for grabs. This includes both the House of Delegates, where Democrats came within one vote of capturing in 2017, and the State Senate where Republicans currently have a slim two-seat majority. In that regard, it’s worth noting that, for the moment at least, the scandals do not appear to be dulling enthusiasm for Virginia Democrats. at least when it comes to fundraising:

Democratic legislators in Virginia enjoyed a strong fundraising quarter in early 2019 despite scandals dogging the state’s Democratic governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general.

Virginia was rocked by scandal earlier this year after a photo emerged from Gov. Ralph Northam’s medical school yearbook page showing a man in blackface standing next to someone else in a Ku Klux Klan robe and hat.

Northam initially apologized before saying the photo was not of him, but he separately acknowledged wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume.

Shortly thereafter, Attorney General Mark Herring also admitted to wearing blackface in the past, while Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax faces accusations of sexual assault that he has denied.

None of the three men have resigned, and The Washington Post reported Wednesday that Democratic candidates for the state House and Senate outraised their Republican counterparts by roughly $700,000 in the first quarter of 2019 despite all the scandals.

Democrats took in $2.4 million in total over the first 3 months of the year.
Virginia House Democrats celebrated the steady stream of funds in a letter to supporters Tuesday that was first reported by the Post.

“These reports are hard, on-paper evidence that the will to win among Democrats is at an all-time high,” the email said, according to the newspaper. “We have the momentum and we have the competitive edge.”

The scandals surrounding the top Democrats have left many wondering whether it could give Republicans a new opening in the state to make gains. 

Republicans maintain an advantage over Democrats in terms of cash on hand, according to the Post. Virginia state House Republicans have $6 million on hand, according to Federal Election Commission filings, compared to $4.2 million for Democrats. In the Senate, the advantage is much smaller: Republicans have $4.9 million on hand, Democrats have $4.4 million.

Obviously, there’s a difference between fundraising and votes but these numbers are a strong indication that Democrats in Virginia has a whole has not been adversely impacted by the scandals facing their three top officeholders. one of whom is ineligible to run for re-election in 2021 in any case. It is worth noting that Northam, Fairfax, and Herring have all seen dips in their own fundraising, but since they personally will not be on the ballot in November that is not likely to have an impact on Democratic efforts going forward. It’s still unclear if Virginia Democrats will be able to build on the momentum of 2017 and get the wins they need to capture one or both chambers of Congress but the scandals that rocked their top leaders in February don’t appear to be having much of an impact on their fortunes/

FILED UNDER: 2019 Election, US Politics, , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    This marks the high water mark of call-out culture. A racist photo, an allegation of sexual abuse, and both guys are still in office.

    To beat one of my dead horses again: if you don’t have rational standards, reasonably-applied, #MeToo and related call-out movements will choke on their own inconsistency and lack of comprehensible standards with the result that not only will the weaker claims (Northam) get tossed out, but the more serious charges (Fairfax) as well.

  2. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds: In your perfect world, how would things like these be handled?

    Should people not be offended by Northam’s fondness for racist photos as a young man (assuming he is now telling the truth about it), or his weirdly changing story? Should he feel shame and step down? What if he doesn’t?

    Same questions about Fairfax, and the allegations there, but with the added “who do we believe?”

    And, as a bonus, Al Franken.

    How should society handle these issues? How should we handle things that either aren’t crimes, or not provably crimes?

    I’ll start.

    Northam deserved a public shaming. Whether he was one of the people in the photograph, or just thought racist photographs were funny when he was a kid, he deserved a bit of a shaming, and a chance to explain himself. Who he is now is more important than who he was as a kid.

    If he lost the confidence of the voters of Virginia, then I think he should have resigned. I think he did a piss-poor job once he started changing his story, but apparently I am out of touch with the voters of Virginia (evidenced by the fact that I don’t know of anyone I know dressing in blackface, while it is shockingly common in Virginia).

    Had he lost support of the voters, and didn’t resign, I don’t know what should be done. Does Virginia have a recall process? Would this be worth it? Probably not.

    Number 3 guy, same thing, except he honestly seems more sympathetic. No pictures of minstrel blackface standing next to the klan.

    Fairfax is harder. The claims against him are of rape, but to the best of my knowledge, they aren’t substantiated with any evidence or contemporaneous documentation, and there aren’t a bunch of other women coming forward with similar claims. If there is more evidence, then it should be taken up by law enforcement, or at least a civil lawsuit.

    I don’t know whether he should step down. It seems like an admission of guilt. If I were his lawyer, I would tell him not to, unless indicted, as it would taint any jury pool against him. I’m not sure he can do his job effectively, but I’m not sure what a Lt. Governor does anyway.

    It’s a criminal matter, it should be handled in the courts. A full public airing of the claims makes it much more likely that if he did rape that woman, other claims would come up. At some point, after a number of women came forward, he would hopefully resign, and if not, be Lt. Governor of Jail.

    I would not confirm him to a lifetime appointment on the Supreme Court with this hanging over his head. Not when there are dozens of identical potential nominees without this problem. (Also, Kavanaugh had more, and better documented, accusers, and behaved like an ass)

    And that brings us to Al Franken. While what he was accused of could be described as a crime, it was mostly just gross. Let’s divide it into two chunks — things he did before running for the Senate, and everything after. I’m willing to give him a pass on mildly gross things done before he was a Senator — it’s the same as Northam, he should have to explain himself, ideally listen to his voters, and ultimately if he doesn’t resign he will face those voters.

    But, grabbing butts of women, presumably his constituents, at photo lines, as a Senator? That crosses a line. That’s not who he was, that’s who he is. And, as the number of women coming forward increased, many with contemporaneous documentation, it formed a pattern and it’s clear he did it.

    At that point, I think you have to be looking for a reason not to call for his resignation. Is he going to be replaced with a Republican? No. Was it really funny? No. Ok, then, the hell with him. Constituents should be treated with respect.

    He chose to resign rather than face the details and the number of the accusations being made public. I think that worked.

    Had he not resigned, I don’t think there are any mechanisms to expel a Senator, but I wouldn’t be opposed to using any that are there.

    Overall, I’m not seeing irrational or unreasonable standards being applied anywhere. And, where shame doesn’t get someone to resign, they will have to face the voters eventually. And, in Steven King’s case, likely be rewarded because his voters are bad people, but every meal he orders at a restaurant will have spit in it.

    Expose past bad behavior. Give them a chance to explain (“at the time, we all wore blackface. it was just normal.”). Don’t tolerate continuing bad behavior. Ultimately they have to face voters or law enforcement, or latinx kitchen staff spitting in their food. What would you have happen differently?

    (The longer I type, the longer I can put off cleaning the cat box)

  3. An Interested Party says:

    Perhaps Trump plays a part in this…I mean, if he could still win the presidency with all of the disgusting information about him that became well known before the election, why wouldn’t other politicians not try to just wait it out when something distasteful becomes known about them…at the same time, the residents of Northern Virginia must really wield a lot of political power…

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Oh, I don’t pretend to have an answer. This is just diagnosis.

    A big part of this is the absence of gatekeepers. Unfortunately the gatekeepers clearly mishandled this issue and that would be massive understatement. We’ve replaced bad judgment with no judgment. It’s an improvement, but it’s an inherently unstable movement – leaderless, lacking definition, whatever the internet decides it is. It reminds me of Occupy. Occupy had an impact, but it faded fast and left less behind than it might have. This is why political parties evolve, they turn idea into action. Hashtags are evanescent, they lack solidity.

  5. Guarneri says:

    There was some numbnut here claiming that VA demonstrated how Dems, being pure, punished their own. Heh. And here we are.

    The very definition of hypocrisy and delusion.

  6. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Unions are falling apart at the seams, but they are also responsible for the fight for $15/hr. Occupy put wage inequality into the national vocabulary, but didn’t do anything with it. #metoo will result in some shitty men facing problems, but not enough — somehow Franken was a step too far, and Gillibrand will be hated for it*.

    There was a terrible staging of Jesus Christ Superstar where the apostles were Occupy Wall Street and #the12. It was amazingly cringeworthy, but somehow sadly relevant. Somehow it catches your desire for hippie-punching and makes you feel slightly good when Jesus is crucified. I think it was Australian?

    Anyway, there’s a decentralization of power structures going on. We’re missing a left party, and are having lefty ideas randomly grafted onto our center-right party, while our putative center-right party has gone to crazy town.

    I think that if the right leader comes along, he/she can tap into this and transform America. I don’t see that leader among our 28 potential nominees.

    If only we could breed Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg together, have them raise their kid and then send their lovechild back in time to now, and run them. But, Buttigieg is gay, so that ruins that idea.

    *: I take Franken personally. He was the first candidate I donated more than a token amount to, and I think he betrayed me.

  7. Michael Reynolds says:

    None of Franken’s behavior occurred while in office. What, did you think, that he was a plaster saint? Did he claim to be? He didn’t betray you, you abandoned him. You may have been right to abandon him, but that’s what happened, not the reverse unless you can point to where Franken pre-emptively denied bad behavior in his past.

    People have histories, they have pasts, and if everyone were open and honest about that I suspect we’d find Franken was well into the good-normal range. We have incentivized hypocrisy and dishonesty by overreacting to events from people’s past. When did Democrats become puritans? When did we lose our capacity for empathy and forgiveness? When did we abandon any concern for fairness? And if we’re just too precious to admit any imperfect person into our tent, how the hell are we to gain power to accomplish something that reaches beyond virtue signaling and gleeful destruction?

    Now the conversation which was good and necessary has devolved into vile attacks on Joe Biden for what? For threatening anyone? No. For sexually harassing anyone? No. For some quid pro quo? No. We’re just shitting on a good man because it’s fun to shit on people. Especially fun if you can rationalize that it’s part of some great cause. Well, it’s not part of some great cause, it’s the great cause self-destructing. And it was entirely predictable. I know, because I predicted it.

    The problem isn’t a lack of leadership, the problem is the American people. That’s why I’ve been borderline depressed for the last three years, the Right has found its inner Nazi, and a big part of the Left is finding its inner Red Guard.

  8. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    None of Franken’s behavior occurred while in office.

    That is not true. Of the publicly known accusations — there were reports of others coming out in the near future when he resigned — one was while he was a sitting senator, one was during the recount, and two on the campaign trail.

    So, not true in a very strict sense (the one where he was a sitting Senator), and not true in a broader sense (I don’t think you would mean to excuse him groping someone right before being sworn in).

    The big, flashy accusations that got most of the headlines were of past behavior. The photo of him pretending to grope the sleeping woman in a flak jacket while mugging it up for the camera tended to eclipse a lot of the other reports.

    He didn’t betray you, you abandoned him. You may have been right to abandon him, but that’s what happened, not the reverse unless you can point to where Franken pre-emptively denied bad behavior in his past.

    There were numerous interviews when he was running where he stated that he knew he had to be on his best behavior going forward — that he couldn’t afford to be funny, and where he had to bite his tongue.

    It’s a point that he reiterates in his book “Al Franken: Giant of the Senate,” where he discusses the initial campaign.

    I’m making the jump that a man who is intelligent enough to reflect upon his own behavior and understand the need to change it to stop making jokes that will be taken out of context should also recognize that he should stop groping women.

    Perhaps that’s not a fair jump to make.

    Perhaps I make that jump because I give him the benefit of the doubt and assume he is doing it to be funny. Miss the mark while putting your arm around someone surprisingly high waisted for a photo? Well, that’s awkward. Just give a big exaggerated squeeze and suggest meeting up in the bathroom later…

    Now the conversation which was good and necessary has devolved into vile attacks on Joe Biden for what?

    To help set boundaries — you will note that Joe Biden is basically unaffected by this, and that no minds were changed. It was a big kerfluffle about nothing.

    And, if he does become the nominee, this would be used to attack him in the general election — indeed it was being used on the right for years — and it’s good to see that he can handle the attacks.

  9. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    When did Democrats become puritans? When did we lose our capacity for empathy and forgiveness?

    I don’t think we have. We have shifted from not caring at all to wanting some kind of acknowledgment of wrongdoing before forgiveness.

    Part of it is a reaction to Trump — we desperately want to be better than that. And part of it is actually valuing women and minorities, rather than simply giving lip-service to that.

    I’m not dazzled with the spectacle of ritualized public apologies for past misdeeds, particularly when they were socially acceptable in the past and weren’t misdeeds at all (for instance, somehow blackface was just a thing people in Virginia were doing in the 1980s). But as society — particularly on the left — has grown, I also think it’s important to see that our leaders have grown.

    And, if a politician can’t make that jump — if they cannot show empathy for the people their past behavior has harmed or belittled — then maybe they shouldn’t run for office. It might be that there simply are no white politicians in Virginia who did not dress in blackface, but but at the very least we should insist on someone who recognizes that it was offensive, and who doesn’t try to minimize it.

    When did we abandon any concern for fairness?

    I don’t think we have. I think we are stumbling our way towards a sense of fairness towards women, people of color, LGBTetc, and — well — people, rather than just ignoring them.

    As our friends on the right are fond of pointing out, Robert Byrd was once a member of the Klan. I think he would have problems running in today’s party, and I think that’s fair.

    I do think that there are a lot of people on the left who cannot distinguish between actively harmful, offensive and indifferent.

    God forbid you support rights for transgendered folks, getting the term offensively wrong, or just don’t consider the effects some policy will have on the such-and-such community and need to have it pointed out.

    Stumbling towards fairness. Sometimes overshooting and getting into crazed persecution, but correcting back.

  10. Michael Reynolds says:

    Without mentioning a name, an acquaintance – although it’s someone whose name you might recognize – has had his career destroyed. You know what the accusations were? He told some off-color jokes – not in private, in a hotel room, but in cocktail parties, around adults. He made people ‘uncomfortable.’ No allegation of threats. No allegation of misuse of power. No hint that he has preyed on anyone. And he is done for.

    So yes, we are losing our empathy and our sense of justice. An injustice is not balanced by an equal and opposite injustice. It’s because people know this in their hearts that the call for believing all victims, all the time, and no backtalk from the accused is unjust. Women have sons and husbands and brothers and don’t want them destroyed by unjust accusation, which is why this will not be as galvanizing to the women’s vote as the Left hopes. A just cause taken to extremes becomes unjust and loses the support of people whose interest is in justice, not in counting coup.

    I will add that as a person who was sexually abused as a child I resent the trivialization of the issue by people who insist on using an important cause to advance personal agendas, or for mere virtue signaling. I was abused, my wife was attacked at gun point in an attempted rape, I’m not on the outside of this issue. My life and my wife’s life are absolutely on the spectrum with ‘he made me blow him if I wanted to keep my job,’ but we are not on the spectrum with, ‘he made me feel uncomfortable.’ One is threat, the other is la vie quotidienne. And my acquaintance’s career was destroyed by the latter.

    And the reason this acquaintance’s predicament bothers me so much is that he’s a nicer man than I am, a more generous one, more sincere, infinitely more friendly. I’m safe because I’m an anti-social semi-recluse, he goes down because he gives a shit. That can’t possibly be the world we want.

  11. Tyrell says:

    Could it be that the people have become immune, or calloused to these scandals?
    They seem to have become an everyday thing, along with the sports scores, weather report, and new car styles. And the obsession of the news media with this kind of stuff: now that’s what gets you. They just talk, discuss, grind about these things seven days a week.
    And this has been going on for a while.
    Even the former Pope has spoken out about the decline of morality and lack of a moral compass.
    “Is there no shame anymore?”

  12. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds: I think there’s a difference between YA Lit and Politics — I’m guessing this friend of yours has been obliquely referenced in the past, and this is a YA Lit Author.

    There’s pushback against the angry mob in politics, and anyone who champions the angry mob when it goes to far has their career stalled — see Gillibrand, where she is most known for calling on Franken to resign, and appears to be hated for it (I agree more with Gillibrand than Franken). All statements on Biden were very measured.

    You make a good point about making someone uncomfortable vs. threatening someone or assaulting them. The latter should be prosecuted wherever possible. On the former, it’s less worse but often still unacceptable.

    I suspect that I should never work in YA, both because of a lack of talent, and also a fondness for attempting to find the exact line right before something becomes offensive, riding that awkward line for as long as possible. It’s a game. I don’t bite the hand that feeds me, but I definitely teeth on it.

    I think that it’s bullshit to set uncomfortable as the boundary in YA, but I think it’s a reasonable line for managers, police, and elected officials — people whose jobs are to deal with people while being in a position of power over them.