Virginia Democrats have imploded over the past week. Quickly put, it came out that Governor Northam (allegedly) posed either in blackface or in klan regalia in his medical school yearbook, during the mid-1980s. He apologized at first, but then backtracked and said it wasn’t him. His position seemed untenable, yet he remains in office. In no small part, that may owe to the tumultuous week that Lieutenant Governor Fairfax is weathering. In 2004, he (allegedly) sexually assaulted a woman at the Democratic National Convention in Boston. He vehemently denies it, and in a private conversation — leaked immediately to the press — he issued a profane philippic against the woman. To top it all off, the Attorney General in the state fessed to wearing blackface in the 1980s as well. The knives are out in the Commonwealth.
There is a lot to unpack from the last week of news in Virginia. The three actors have navigated their respective kerfuffles in unique ways. It is hard to tell which, if any, of these responses will be successful. At this juncture, there is nothing new to say about the precarious relationship between race and the South. In one of his final columns, Rob Christensen’s tenth point cites Bill Snider: “From time to time, you will be tempted to write that race is no longer a factor in Tar Heel politics. Don’t do it.” We all would do well to keep in mind this fact: slavery existed in this country until 1865, the Civil Rights Act codified equal rights and ended segregation in 1964, and the last lynching took place in 1981. The first two are positives, and the final point a clear-eyed acknowledgement that the South has always been slow to change its ways, even when those ways are wholly evil in hindsight.
That said, the conversations taking place in Richmond today and the rest of this week are not about the evils of the past. The Democrats in Virginia are huddling to consider political repercussions and what the party will do moving forward, looking toward the future and what comes after 2020, and reapportionment specifically. As Cillizza pointed out, the line of succession in Virginia goes from the Democratic Governor (embroiled in scandal) to the Democratic Lieutenant Governor (embroiled in scandal) to the Democratic Attorney General (embroiled in scandal) to the Republican Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates (not currently embroiled in scandal). In a former swing state that now votes reliably blue statewide, that outcome is unacceptable for most Democrats.
With that context in mind, don’t expect all three to resign. At this rate, perhaps none of them will. But there is no way that Democrats will cede to the Republican Party the governorship of the Commonwealth going into the decennial process of redistricting. Moreover, both legislative chambers are almost evenly split, giving the governor an outsized amount of power to sway the direction of legislation. Too much power is at stake. If other Democrats in the state, or nationwide, hold any power over the scandal-ridden triumvirate, they’ll likely opt to have AG Herring succeed to the governorship. He has handled his scandal with the most humility of the three; Governor Northam flip-flopped and abrogated responsibility, and Lt. Governor Fairfax has attacked his accuser. Neither seem tenable.
In the years since Donald Trump flipped the political norms of the United States on its head, Democrats have policed the transgressions of their own with severity and lambasted Republican responses they found lacking. Al Franken’s sacrifice came with the knowledge that he would be replaced by a Democrat. The onslaught against Brett Kavanaugh came with the knowledge that he would make it to the bench anyways. Now that there are negative long-term repercussions to the party in Virginia, for governor Democrats face a Hobson’s choice: a damaged Democrat or no Democrat at all.
Kirk Kovach is a native North Carolinian interested in writing about politics, communication and culture.