That sound you hear is Virginia’s Democratic Party collapsing on itself.
In the last six days, the following things have happened:
What. The. Actual. Hell.
- Gov. Ralph Northam said he was in a picture in his medical school yearbook of two people – one in blackface, the other in KKK robes. He then recanted and said he wasn’t in that picture. But he added that he *had* darkened his face to look more like Michael Jackson for a dance contest in 1984.
- A woman named Vanessa Tyson accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of assaulting her during the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston. Fairfax angrily denied the allegations. Then on Wednesday Tyson released a statement, in which she said in part “what began as consensual kissing quickly turned into a sexual assault.”
- State Attorney General Mark Herring, in a statement released Wednesday morning, acknowledged that he, too, had appeared in blackface at a party. “In 1980, when I was a 19-year-old undergraduate in college, some friends suggested we attend a party dressed like rappers we listened to at the time, like Kurtis Blow, and perform a song,” Herring said.
It’s hard to process this chain of events. In the immediate aftermath of the blackface/KKK picture that may or may not have featured Northam, the writing appeared to be on the wall: He needed to go. Every major national Democrat this side of Barack Obama called for Northam to step aside. As did many of Northam’s longtime allies, including former Virginia governors Tim Kaine and Terry McAuliffe.
The rush to get Northam was due, in part, to what appeared to be an elegant solution: Fairfax, the 39-year old African-American lieutenant governor seemed ready, willing and able to take over.
That quick succession plan took a major hit with the allegation from Tyson. And the subsequent, largely behind-the-scenes finger-pointing between forces aligned with Fairfax, Northam and Democratic Richmond Mayor LeVar Stoney over who leaked the Fairfax allegation.
That alone was enough to create something very close to total chaos in the Virginia Democratic Party, which has been ascendant in recent years – having held the governorship for all but four years since 2001 and now controlling both of the state’s US Senate seats and seven of the state’s 11 congressional districts.
But the Herring news – on top of everything else – made for a full sky-is-falling moment among Virginia Democrats.
And for somewhat good reason. The party’s top three elected officials in the state are now in varying levels of political distress. All three are damaged, although it remains to be seen how badly. Then there’s this: If all three resign, the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates – Republican Kirk Cox – would be next in line to take over.
But wait, there’s more!
Cox is speaker solely because Republican David Yancey won a state House seat in early 2018 when his name was picked out of a bowl. Yes, this really happened! (The race was tied. If Yancey had lost the random drawing, the state House would have been split 50-50.)
The implications of this stunning series of events could be considerable – in both Virginia and the rest of the country.
Virginia holds state legislative elections this November and, prior to the past five days, Democrats believed they were in strong shape to take over majorities in both the state House and state Senate. (Republicans have a three-seat edge in the state House and a two seat gap in the state Senate.)
Plus, Virginia is the only state in the country that limits its governors to a single term – meaning that no matter what happens, there will be an open seat race in 2021. And now Fairfax and Herring – two likely contenders for that job – are in the midst of scandals. It’s less clear how much residual damage if any Stoney, who also has gubernatorial ambitions, suffers from all of this.
Nationally, Democrats have sought to adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward allegations of sexual assault and race amid the Trump presidency and the #MeToo movement. To have not one, not two, but three statewide elected officials in a swing state battling a variety of these charges – and with none currently signaling they will step aside – is a political nightmare for the party writ large.
There’s a tendency in politics – especially with Trump in the White House – to insist that nothing like this has ever happened before. In most cases, that’s a significant exaggeration.
The situation in Virginia is not one of those cases.