What Virginia’s Political Turmoil Implies for its Swing Statehood

By Musa Kamara (PO’22)

Not even two full months into 2019, Virginia’s political sphere has seen its most prominent Democratic leaders plunged into the national spotlight, receiving scrutiny from Republicans and Democrats alike. In recent history, Virginia has been classified as a swing state as a result of the relatively small margins of victory for the Democratic party in each of the last three elections (6.3% in 2008, 3.9% in 2012, and 5.4% in 2016). However, the reactions to Virginia’s political unrest and recent electoral results have called into question the true extent of Virginia’s swing state nature.

Virginia’s Governor, Ralph Northam—who assumed office in January of 2018—initiated the current political turmoil by attracting the attention of President Trump over comments he made in late January addressing a bill that came before the Virginia House of Delegates. Among other aspects, the bill loosens restrictions on third trimester abortions; Northam, a pediatric neurologist by trade, made a statement construed by Trump as an endorsement for infanticide. Although Northam later released a clarifying statement, by that point his statements were national news.

Only days later, a photo from Northam’s medical school yearbook page revealed two individuals: one appearing to be wearing blackface and another appearing to wear a full Ku Klux Klan costume. Mere hours after the photo emerged, Northam acknowledged his presence in the photo and apologized. However, the next day, Northam backtracked. He stated that though in the past he had donned blackface in order to portray Michael Jackson, he was in fact not pictured in the photo. Northam has refused to step down from his position, despite the fact that numerous Democratic presidential candidates and the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus have called for his resignation.

Were Northam to step down, his replacement would be Justin Fairfax, Virginia’s Lieutenant Governor. Fairfax assumed office at the same time as Northam and would be Virginia’s first African-American governor. Fairfax’s political advancement grew unlikely amidst Northam’s refusal to resign and the fact that Fairfax found himself at the center of his own controversy only two days after Northam’s statement. On February 1st, Scripps College professor Vanessa Tyson issued a statement alleging that Fairfax had sexually assaulted her in 2004. Fairfax, like Northam, denied the allegations, asserting that his relations with Tyson were consensual. Additionally, Fairfax, like Northam, was met a few days later with a second controversy: Meredith Watson, a Maryland resident, also accused Fairfax of sexual assault from an incident that occurred in 2000. Fairfax continues to deny these allegations and has shown no intention of resigning despite calls from numerous Democratic political figures to do so. As of February 9th, he has called for an FBI investigation into the accusations.

Furthermore, Virginia’s Attorney General Mark Herring, who has held office since 2014, disclosed that he also wore blackface in college. Herring’s statements preceded the allegations against Fairfax only by hours.

Northam, Fairfax, and Herring, all members of the Democratic party, constitute the three uppermost levels of Virginia’s gubernatorial succession. As of today, all face demands of resignation from Democrats and Republicans. Were all three to resign, Virginia’s highest governmental position would fall to Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates Kirk Cox, a Republican who has called for the resignations from Northam, Fairfax, and Herring that would have him ascend to the Virginia Governorship. Cox would be only the second Republican to assume the Virginia governorship since 2002.

Seeing as Virginia has been targeted in recent presidential elections because of its close races, one would assume that even minor missteps from either major party would result in swift changes in public opinion. Thus, this series of actual and alleged indiscretions by three prominent Democratic Virginian politicians would represent exactly the rightward push that Republican presidential candidates have been hoping for since 2008.

Morning Consult, a survey research data company, published the results of a poll on February 4th, showing that Northam’s numbers have plummeted from their pre-controversy levels amongst Democrats, Republicans, and independents. On the other hand, a Washington Post poll published on February 9th showed that Virginia voters are split evenly in terms of whether they think Northam should resign. So, while Northam has lost significant support, this loss of support has by no means inspired widespread outrage calling for Northam to resign.

Despite the fact that the holders of Virginia’s three highest elected positions have all faced national calls for resignation and have not shown the slightest intention to do so, Virginians themselves seem rather indifferent in terms of calling for resignation and relinquishing power to the Republican party. These same Virginians have voted for a Democratic president in each of the past three elections; furthermore, the 2018 midterm elections saw Virginia Democrats retain a Senate seat, not lose a single House of Representatives seat, and actually flip three previously Republican-held House seats. A Republican win in Virginia in 2020 would represent a huge gain for President Trump (assuming Trump receives the Republican presidential nomination) and would greatly increase his reelection prospects. However, Trump’s numbers in Virginia remain unpromising and have shown a general downward trend since he first assumed office. So, for now, it appears as if Virginia is heading in the direction of staying blue for the foreseeable future, especially when it comes to PresidentTrump.

One thought on “What Virginia’s Political Turmoil Implies for its Swing Statehood

  1. Thanks for this insightful run-through of the problem in Virginia. Talking about a perfect storm! Symptom of a national malaise.

    As you have so aptly described it, the situation presents a moral and political quagmire for Democrats. Current polls do indeed show there is not much Democrats should worry about, especially nationally. Yet, how well–or badly–Virginians, especially Virginia Democrats, manage the situation will have consequences beyond the borders of the state. We all know how tides can turn!

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