RICHMOND, Va. ― Virginia Democrats moved quickly to press Gov. Ralph Northam (D) to resign after a racist photo from his medical school yearbook page emerged Friday afternoon.
Democrats were virtually unanimous in their push for Northam to step aside, taking offense to both the photo itself ― which showed one man in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes ― and the governor’s initial acknowledgement that he was one of the men featured in it. He changed his tune at a press conference Saturday, denying that he was in the photo but admitting to wearing blackface another time. He also was widely mocked when he appeared to consider moonwalking for reporters.
After that press conference, even the Democratic elected officials who had initially stuck by the governor began to abandon him.
But there are also high political stakes involved.
Democrats have a good chance of taking control of both the House of Delegates and the state Senate, where Republicans currently have narrow majorities, in November. Republicans now hold a three-seat majority in the state House and a two-seat advantage in the state Senate.
But Northam remaining at the top of the ticket could jeopardize Democrats’ shot at unified control of state government.
“It’s an unimaginable scenario going into an election cycle,” said an adviser to a Democratic state legislator who requested anonymity to speak freely. “This is the closest opportunity Democrats have had to take control of the legislature in a generation.”
Virginia is one of a handful of states in the country where gubernatorial and state legislative elections occur in off years when there is no congressional or presidential election to drive turnout.
The backlash to President Donald Trump’s election in 2016 spurred high Democratic turnout and enthusiasm in Virginia’s November 2017 elections. As a result, Democrats kept control of the governorship by a comfortable margin and flipped 15 Republican-held seats in the House of Delegates, bringing them within a hair of taking control of the legislative chamber.
“Given the current political environment, I can’t see any scenario where the Republicans don’t claim [Northam] is either the Klansman or the person in blackface in mail or in TV.”
Even in the minority, the new Democratic cohort produced major policy wins for the party. Building on their electoral momentum, Northam and legislative Democrats managed to pick up enough Republican support to expand Medicaid to 400,000 low-income Virginians in May using federal funding from the Affordable Care Act.
The party was hopeful that its legislative accomplishments, Northam’s relative popularity and the seemingly unabated passion of the Democratic base could power a strong enough showing to flip both chambers. (The state Senate, which was not up for re-election in 2017, is in cycle in 2019.)
Unified control of Virginia’s state government could usher in a period of progressive lawmaking the likes of which the state has not experienced in decades ― if at all.
Some items on Democrats’ agenda if they take control include raising the state’s minimum wage and permanently restoring voting rights to former felons.
Perhaps most importantly, unified control would enable Democrats to run the redistricting process in 2021, preventing a repeat of the 2011 drawing in which Republicans heavily gerrymandered the congressional and state legislative district boundaries.
But a governor is the de facto face of a party ― its chief fundraiser and advocate in the media. Candidates for state legislature frequently lack the name recognition that a highly visible figure like the governor wields.
If Northam remains in power, Democrats would not only lack the chance to deploy him as an asset in November, but also suffer from Republican willingness to turn him into a liability.
Notwithstanding the Virginia GOP’s willingness to traffic in explicit racial incitement ― look no further than Ed Gillespie’s gubernatorial bid and Corey Stewart’s run for U.S. Senate ― the party has pounced on the racist Northam photo.
If it chose to do so, the state’s Republican Party could use the yearbook photo in campaign literature and advertisements in the hopes of depressing black and liberal turnout in the state. African-Americans make up about 20 percent Virginia’s population and are the heart of the Democratic coalition in the state.
“Given the current political environment, I can’t see any scenario where the Republicans don’t claim he is either the Klansman or the person in blackface in mail or in TV,” the Democratic adviser said.
Virginia Del. Lee Carter (D), a freshman who has been outspoken in calling for Northam’s resignation, told HuffPost that it was “a bit early” to consider implications for the November elections.
But, he added, “It ain’t great.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Virginia is one of only two states that hold off-year elections. There are more than two states that do so.