Early this year, Virginia Democrats were feeling good about their 2018 gains, and were looking forward to the prospect of finally reconquering both chambers of the state legislature. As for 2021, when Governor Ralph Northam will be term-limited (Virginia is the sole remaining state with a one-term limit on gubernatorial tenures), there was a general expectation that Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax and Attorney General Mark Herring were positioning themselves for a highly competitive gubernatorial primary.
Then — kaboom. Northam and Herring were hit with evidence they had appeared in blackface in school yearbooks, and then two women came forward accusing Fairfax of sexual assault. Miraculously, all three men have survived episodic calls for their resignation, and Virginia Democrats are newly optimistic they can still do well in the legislative elections this fall.
As for 2021 — well, that’s a ways off, and the scandal-plagued leaders have reason to think the furor will continue to wane. But if anyone’s still in imminent peril, it’s Fairfax, who despite denying the charges against him, could still have a public reckoning. So this indication (via a report from the Richmond Times-Dispatch) that he’s not letting it spoil his ambitions is interesting, particularly since he blandly suggests the scandal has raised his name ID:
Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax said Thursday that he is “very hopeful about the future” and “thinking very seriously” about a gubernatorial run in 2021.
Fairfax, who faces sexual assault allegations by two women, said the scandal has raised his public profile for good.
“Many people a year ago would not have recognized me, now they really do,” Fairfax said. “People come up to me at gas stations, they say, ‘Hey, we recognize you. We love you. We know what they are saying about you is false’ ” …
Fairfax has insisted the allegations are untrue and a “smear campaign” launched on the cusp of his likely ascent to higher office amid the blackface scandal that has plagued Gov. Ralph Northam.
The two women have for months requested a public hearing before the General Assembly, where they could testify under oath about their allegations. Fairfax and Democrats in the General Assembly have sought to block efforts by Republicans to hold the hearing, claiming partisan antics and arguing in favor of law enforcement investigations.
Back in February, at the height of the Virginia Democratic leadership meltdown, Herring said he still intended to run in 2021; both he and Fairfax have seen their approval ratings drop, though not calamitously. But the more prominent story in recent weeks has been that a very familiar figure could come back home and save his party from scandal and a potentially nasty primary, as Politico explained last month:
Terry McAuliffe toyed with a presidential bid for months only to bow out. But back in his adopted state of Virginia, it’s assumed he’s going to run for a second term as governor.
McAuliffe hasn’t decided, though he doesn’t exactly discourage the speculation, either. But a half-dozen people close to him told POLITICO he’s seriously considering it. And Democrats in Richmond are operating as though it’s a done deal.
In part because of the problems experienced by Northam, Fairfax, and Herring, McAuliffe has already begun playing a very active role in barnstorming for Democratic legislative candidates. And if things work out, a Democratic legislature could make a second term in Richmond attractive to T-Mac:
The Republican-led chamber thwarted McAuliffe’s signature campaign promise of expanding Medicaid through the Affordable Care Act, though it passed after he left office.
McAuliffe has always been popular among Virginia’s African-Americans, which could help him edge Fairfax out the 2021 race if he decides to enter it. But the lieutenant governor’s more immediate challenge is to clear himself, or at least cast serious doubts upon, allegations he committed a rape in Durham, North Carolina, in 2000 and in another in Boston in 2004. Last week he tried to go on the offensive, as the Newport News Daily Press reported:
Saying he wants to “expedite the process” and prove his innocence, an attorney for Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is officially calling on prosecutors in Durham and Boston to investigate allegations of sexual assault against him.
The letters, sent Wednesday and provided to the Daily Press by Fairfax’s spokeswoman, come more than four months after two women accused the Democratic lieutenant governor of rape …
In both letters to the prosecutors, the lawyer says Fairfax is prepared to help with the investigation, testify under oath and be interviewed. He added he hoped the two women would file a criminal complaint and “join me in asking for an investigation and will cooperate in your Office’s investigation of that complaint.”
Until this saga plays out, Fairfax’s political viability has to be considered very limited. And a potentially large 2021 field of Virginia Republicans are watching the whole show for signs that Democrats are losing their recent political momentum in the state.