'This is an earthquake': Virginia GOP celebrates Dems implosion


politics
'This is an earthquake': Virginia GOP celebrates Dems implosion

Gov. Ralph Northam came under fire a week ago when his 1984 medical school yearbook page surfaced showing men wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and blackface.

RICHMOND, Va. — Democrats have grown bullish the past few election cycles about putting leftward-shifting Virginia permanently in their column.

Then this week happened.

The scandals that engulfed the state governments top three leaders have given Republicans renewed hope they can blunt the states leftward drift. It was no accident that this week Republicans decided to target Democratic Sen. Mark Warner, the states most popular politician who was not thought to be at risk in 2020. They think several newly-elected Democratic House members bungled their response to the first sexual assault allegation against Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax by, in some cases, waiting days to react— creating an opening for the GOP.

And Democrats worry that the states top lawmakers wont be able to raise money or campaign this year when all 140 seats in the nearly evenly divided legislature are up for grabs.

Its a rare moment of optimism for Virginia Republicans at a time when their party is down and out nationally, still hurting from the midterm elections when they lost control of the U.S. House.

“They were facing generational political Armageddon,” said John Fredericks, a conservative radio host who served as chairman of Donald Trumps 2016 campaign in Virginia. “This all changed in eight days. This is an earthquake. Its a unique opportunity for Republicans.”

Gov. Ralph Northam came under fire a week ago when his 1984 medical school yearbook page surfaced showing men wearing a Ku Klux Klan robe and blackface.

Two days later, Fairfax faced a sexual assault allegation stemming from the Democratic National Convention in 2004, followed on Friday when a former college classmate accused him of rape. (Fairfax denies both allegations.) And Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface in 1980.

In Washington, Republicans see potential to gain some ground in a state where theyve become accustomed to losing. Democrats have held all five statewide offices since 2013, and in 2016 Hillary Clinton won Virginia by five points.

Top officials at the National Republican Senatorial Committee met on Wednesday to discuss Warner, a popular two-term senator and former governor who, like other Virginia elected officials, had to navigate the thorny misdeeds of his contemporaries this week. Warner won reelection by less than one point in 2014 and — though he was not considered a top target for the NRSC two weeks ago — the committee is now looking to make Virginia a competitive race.

“In Virginia today, as opposed to two weeks ago, the political climate is totally and completely different,” NRSC Executive Director Kevin McLaughlin told POLITICO. “Whereas two weeks ago it was a reliably Democratic state, today everything is in flux. Theres nothing worse than uncertainty — thats a dangerous place for Mark Warner to be.”

Warner called on Northam to resign after the governor held a news conference in which he retracted an earlier statement saying he had been in the yearbook photo but admitted to wearing blackface on another occasion. Late Thursday, Warner joined the rest of the Virginia congressional delegation in a joint statement that did not call on Fairfax or Herring to resign and said the lawmakers will “evaluate additional information as it comes to light.”

After the rape accusation Friday night, Warner said in a statement that if the allegations against Fairfax are accurate, "then they are clearly disqualifying and he must resign.”

Republicans seized on the delayed reactions to the initial Fairfax news by three newly-elected House members representing swing districts in Virginia: Reps. Elaine Luria, Abigail Spanberger and Jennifer Wexton.

Luria and Spanberger waited four days before addressing the first allegation against Fairfax. Wexton quickly tweeted her support of Fairfaxs accuser, saying “I believe Dr. Vanessa Tyson.” But she declined to call for Fairfax to resign when questioned by The Washington Post.

Two days later, after Meredith Watson accused Fairfax of raping her when the two attended Duke University in 2000, Wexton issued a tweet calling for him to resign.

“These women ran as independent leaders last cycle and now theyre hiding,” National Republican Congressional Committee spokesperson Camille Gallo said. Democrats in Washington counter that the 2020 elections are almost two years away, and will be more determined by who is in the White House than a two-year-old scandal in Richmond.

Republican strategists and activists were abuzz about their chances this November, when the partys slim control of both state legislative chambers are in jeopardy in Virginias off-year elections.

Republicans have a two-seat majority in the Senate, which has flipped back and forth between the parties four times during the past decade. Four Republican seats had been considered vulnerable this fall, compared to just two Democratic seats.

In the House, Democrats made massive gains in 2017 and nearly took control. They were favored to make more gains in the House, where Republicans hold a three-seat majority with one vacancy.

“The entire executive branch of Virginia is apprised of Democrats and all of them are embroiled in their own respective scandals at this point so yes, that has obviously done damage to them,” Republican House Majority Leader Todd Gilbert said. Still, he added, “The damage this has done to Virginia is a much larger issue than these secondary political implications.”

Even if they hang on, the three top leaders wont be of much help to down-ballot Democrats. Normally they would be among the most powerful Democratic surrogates to appear at campaign rallies or raise money.

After this week, Republicans said they expect to recruit more formidable candidates, while Democrats wonder who theyll have to run for statewide races in in 2021, the next time the seats are up. Fairfax and Herring had both been expected to run for governor.

"Candidate recruitment for the GOP is being made a lot easier thanks to the events of the last two weeks,” said John March, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia, referring to the scandals and Northams controversial comments about late-term abortions.

Some Democrats dispute the consequences, saying the focus will quickly turn back to Trump and national politics.

“Six months from now, everything is going to be in the rearview mirror and the focus on D.C.,” state Sen. Scott Surovell said.

Other Democrats lamented they had only hurt themselves by acting so quickly on Northam, who said he was in his yearbook photo then reversed course, but did admit to donning blackface on another occasion.

“Im sure there is some regret and remorse at what happened,” said Ward Armstrong, a longtime Democratic legislator who served as House minority leader.

By: POLITICO

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