Until very recently, Virginia Democrats were feeling mighty good about their future. In 2016 the state went Democratic in a third consecutive presidential election, after going Republican in ten straight contests before that. In 2017 Democrats held onto the governorship for a second consecutive term and made big legislative gains as well. They picked up three U.S. House seats in 2018. Going into this year, they held every statewide elected office, and appeared on the brink of regaining a governing trifecta in the fall, when the entire legislature is up for reelection.
Now, with shocking suddenness, Virginia Democrats are facing a crisis that gets more bizarre by the minute. Governor Ralph Northam is hanging onto his job by a thread after revelations emerged of a medical-school yearbook photo of him in blackface (his subsequent denials in a disastrous press conference that the photo was of him coupled with the admission that he appeared in a different blackface image only made things worse). Nearly every identifiable figure in Virginia Democratic politics, and many national party figures as well, have called for Northam’s immediate resignation. But before he could be dragged out of office, Northam’s designated successor, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax — who as it happens is African-American — was hit with a separate revelation (though from the same conservative news source that dimed out Northam) of allegations he sexually assaulted a woman back in 2004. As Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball noted, the Fairfax story immediately got cloudy:
Fairfax released a statement around 3 a.m. Monday denying the allegations and noting that the Washington Post had explored it following his 2017 election but had decided not to publish it after “being presented with facts consistent with the Lt. Governor’s denial of the allegation, the absence of any evidence corroborating the allegation, and significant red flags and inconsistencies within the allegation.” Following Fairfax’s statement, the story spilled into the mainstream press, and the Washington Post did its own story, confirming that it had investigated the allegation but decided not to publish it because, and this is our paraphrase, the accusation essentially amounted to a “he said, she said” situation that the Post could not otherwise verify. However, the Post did not say that it had found holes in the woman’s story; rather, the paper just couldn’t confirm it and opted not to publish based on that. Fairfax has hinted that the story is coming out for political reasons, but it’s also quite possible that his national prominence in the last few days simply caused the accuser to try to get her accusation into the public sphere. Nonetheless, Fairfax has made no secret of his belief that other political figures — including Northam and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D), a Fairfax rival — had fanned the rumors. Northam and Stoney deny that, but questions about Fairfax have undeniably helped slow the rush to show Northam the door.
Not exactly the sort of party unity you’d like to see, eh? But it gets much, much worse. First of all, Fairfax’s accuser was revealed as a California college professor named Vanessa Tyson, an African-American woman who has done significant work on the problem of sexual violence against women. She authorized the released of a Facebook post that dispelled any possibility she was just being used by Fairfax’s opponents:
Imagine you were sexually assaulted during the DNC convention in Boston in 2004 by a campaign staffer and you spend the next 13 years trying to forget it ever happened until one day you find out he’s the Democratic candidate for statewide office in a state some 3000 miles away, and he wins that election in November 2017. Then by strange, horrible luck, it seems increasingly likely that he’ll get a very big promotion.
Even more ominously for Fairfax, Tyson has retained the same law firm that represented Christine Blasey Ford after she emerged publicly as someone who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual assault many years earlier. You could probably hear the chortling of Republicans over that conjunction of developments from deep space.
Though Fairfax continues to insist his admitted sexual encounter with Tyson was fully consensual, and Virginia Democrats have not quickly handed him an anvil the way they did Northam, it’s not looking good for the lieutenant governor. That led to speculation that Virginia’s No. 3 elected official, Democratic attorney general Mark Herring, might step across the supine figures of both Northam and Fairfax to save the day. But then this happened:
Herring subsequently released a long statement admitting that as a college undergrad he put on “wigs and brown makeup” at a party, apparently depicting himself as a rapper. He was even more contrite about it all than Northam (whom he had already called upon to resign), but it’s unclear how Virginia Democrats can simultaneously condemn one man but not the other.
So now the roving eye of political speculation is focused on the next pol in the line of succession to the governorship: Republican House Speaker Kirk Cox, who enjoys his position because a 2018 coin flip awarded a House seat, for which two candidates tied, to Cox’s party. Should it transpire that the apparent epidemic of racist photos of Virginia college students from back in the day infect Cox as well, the full House of Delegates would fill the vacancy, presumably flipping party control of the governorship.
At this point, Virginia Democrats can only pray that the allegations against Fairfax collapse very quickly. Otherwise the way forward for them is both hazy and very perilous. And there’s simply no telling how the entire insane episode might affect the day-to-day operations of Virginia government, and the elections that now seem very close at hand.