The Democratic Party of Virginia was engulfed in a full-blown political crisis Wednesday, as a series of scandals tarnished the Commonwealth’s three top Democratic leaders and threatened to reverse the historic gains the party has made in the state in recent years.

With Attorney General Mark Herring acknowledging that he wore blackface at a fraternity party nearly 30 years ago, Democrats were unsure whether he, Gov. Ralph Northam, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would remain in office after scandals that could repel the party’s base of support.

Gov. Ralph Northam prepares to address a news conference at the Capitol in Richmond, Va., last week.

While the ultimate damage remains unclear, a sense of despair permeated a party that only days ago believed it was on the cusp of winning majorities in both houses of the General Assembly in the fall and cementing its control of the state.

“This is just devastating,” said Ben Tribbett, a Fairfax-based Democratic strategist. “After a nuclear bomb goes off, it’s not always better to be a survivor. We look terrible, and everyone knows it. There’s no scenario where things get fixed. Humpty Dumpty doesn’t get put back together again.”

The nature of the scandals engulfing Northam, Fairfax and Herring – two involving racially offensive imagery, the other an alleged sexual assault – seem likely to alienate black and female voters, two of the Democrats’ core constituencies. “We have been carried by our base,” Tribbett said, “and you’re not going to have energy in your base with something like this going on.”

As the new year began, Democrats in Virginia had an abundance of reasons to preen. A trio of Democrats, after knocking off Republican incumbents, was about to begin representing the commonwealth in Congress.


And Northam could tout an impressive litany of first-year accomplishments, including Medicaid expansion and Amazon’s decision to bring a haul of jobs to Crystal City.

But over the past week, as the scandals have battered the governor, Fairfax and Herring, Democrats now find themselves in the throes of a political cataclysm, one that has halted the party’s momentum, unleashed a spasm of fighting among its leaders and renewed Republicans’ hopes of remaining competitive in a state that seemed increasingly cold to their message.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, says he put on a wig and dark makeup to dress as a rapper in college.

Some Democrats insist that it’s premature to predict what will happen in November, and they point, perhaps as a source of comfort, to scandals that did not result in parties losing power, such as when then-Republican Gov. Mark Sanford of North Carolina acknowledged an extramarital affair.

Not only did Sanford completed his term, but he was succeeded by Republican Nikki Haley. Sanford was subsequently elected to Congress.

Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., who has demanded Northam’s resignation, acknowledged that Democratic voters in Virginia “feel angry, embarrassed, anxious and betrayed.”

But he said he expected that they would still turn out in large numbers in November, as they have in recent election cycles as the state has grown increasingly Democratic. “These fundamentals have not changed because Ralph Northam has a problem,” Connolly said. “I say that it’s way too early to make that judgment.”


Herring did not use the phrase “blackface” in his statement Wednesday, but said he had donned a wig and put on dark makeup when dressing as a rap singer at a fraternity party in college.

After he came forward, Virginia Republicans were as stunned as their Democratic counterparts.

“What was a slow-moving train wreck is now like a bullet train wreck,” said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist and veteran of numerous Virginia political wars. “The reports of Republicans’ demise in the Commonwealth of Virginia have been greatly exaggerated.”

Democratic Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax presides over the Senate session in the state Capitol on Feb. 5, 2019, in Richmond. He has denied sexual assaulted allegations.

He said the scandals provide Republicans with an opportunity, but one they have to approach with care. “Don’t gloat, don’t overplay your hand,” he said. “At the end of the day, voters want candidates who speak to their concerns and issues. You can’t run campaigns in the modern age based solely on the fact that a party’s top messengers have problems.”

Dan Scandling, a Republican and former aide to Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said that before the scandals, Republicans were facing a “long slow walk in the wilderness. As long as President Trump was on top of the ticket, everything was going to cascade down from the White House and be a hundred pound weight on your head.”

Now, Scandling said, “the window of opportunity is back open.”

“The swing voters are going to tap the brakes now,” he said. “And the minority community is going to look at the Democrats and say, ‘Really?’ Have you been pulling the wool over our eyes all these years?”

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