Principles or power? Virginia political scandal a test for Democrats

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The spiraling political crisis in Virginia, which threatens to take out three top state Democrats with racial scandals or sexual assault accusations, poses a stiff test for a party thriving on its growing strength with women and minorities.

FILE PHOTO: Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, accompanied by his wife Pamela Northam announces he will not resign during a news conference in Richmond, Virginia, U.S. February 2, 2019. REUTERS/ Jay Paul/File Photo

If all three step aside, the next in line to be governor is the Republican House speaker. That leaves many state Democrats in a quandary: Should they stick to the moral high ground and seek their resignations, or protect the party’s power in a vital battleground state?

“This is a moment of reckoning for Virginia,” said Stephen Farnsworth, a political scientist at Mary Washington University in Virginia. “Political principles that cost you something are always a lot harder to maintain.”

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam and state Attorney General Mark Herring, who is third in line to the governor, have acknowledged wearing blackface while students in college in the 1980s, an act widely seen as racist although it was not uncommon in television and movies of the time.

Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax, who would take over as governor if Northam steps down, faces allegations he sexually assaulted a woman in 2004. Fairfax, who is black, has denied the allegation and said the sexual encounter was consensual.

Northam faced a wave of calls for his resignation from state Democrats and at least five Democratic 2020 White House contenders after the scandal broke last week when a racist photo from his 1984 medical school yearbook surfaced.

But as the controversy spread to Fairfax and Herring, many Democrats have softened their position amid fears the growing crisis will halt the party’s recent political momentum ahead of legislative elections this year and the presidential election next year.

“This has been a complete debacle,” said Virginia-based Democratic strategist Ben Tribbett, who said the early surge of Democratic calls for Northam’s resignation were made out of confidence that a Democrat would replace him.

Now, he said, many Democrats are reconsidering.

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“It has all been about political power. We don’t have the principles we think we have,” Tribbett said.

Buoyed by a backlash against Republican President Donald Trump, particularly in suburban areas, Democrats have made huge gains in Virginia in the last two years. They moved close to capturing a majority in the state House of Delegates in 2017, and picked up three U.S. House of Representatives seats from Republicans last year.

But Tribbett said Democrats in the state will have to answer questions about the scandals for years, whether or not any of the three leaves office. Herring and Fairfax had been seen as the top two Democratic contenders to replace Northam when his four-year term ends in 2021.

Women and racial minorities are two of the party’s most reliable voting blocs, and national Democrats have made racial justice and sexual equality key pillars of their agenda, taking a tough line against sexual misconduct or racial insensitivity to try to avoid being accused of hypocrisy in criticizing Trump and Republicans.

The scandal in Virginia “shows how vulnerable Democrats can become to these attacks,” Republican strategist John Feehery said. “When they attack each other on these themes, it hits hard.”

The Democratic approach stands in contrast to the recent strategy by Republicans, who have stuck with Trump after he brushed off allegations of sexual misconduct to win the White House and weathered repeated scandals in office.

Other Republicans have taken a cue from the president. Chris Collins of New York was re-elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November despite facing an indictment for insider trading.

Despite a history of racist comments, Steve King is still a member of Congress even though he was kicked off committees by Republican leaders after defending white nationalism and white supremacy in an interview.

Democrats said there was little danger of the party stealing a page from Trump and trying to ride out future controversies.

“I don’t think Trump has changed the game,” said Democratic strategist Dane Strother, who frequently works on campaigns in the South, noting Democratic Senator Al Franken’s 2017 resignation after allegations of unwanted sexual advances were made against him.

“Democrats have not learned the wrong lessons from Trump, and I’m glad about that. I hate that Al Franken is gone, but he did what he thought was best,” he said. “If you sexually harass a woman or you say racist things ... as Democrats we stop and talk about it.”

Reporting by John Whitesides; Editing by Scott Malone and Lisa Shumaker