What's the Matter With Virginia?

Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam  State of the Commonwealth address

LEXINGTON, Va. -- Clare Perry considers herself a Democrat. Grayson Pearce is a Republican. She's from Richmond, and he's from Virginia Beach. Despite holding opposing political values, they both have the same question: What is the matter with Virginia?

In particular, what's wrong with its politics?

A few months ago, in a cascade of disgraces, both Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to having worn blackface. Then, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax was accused of sexual assault by two women.

Now the stories have seemingly disappeared from the front pages, or any pages, of the local news outlets.

For both Perry, 20, and Pearce, 19, the fact that all three controversies were left drifting in the wind is mind-boggling.

"Honestly, I'm stunned, and I'm stunned it went away so quickly," Perry explains. She's more bothered that Fairfax has skated.

For Pearce, there's a personal angle: He worked on the campaign of Northam's opponent, Ed Gillespie. But it also stings, in part, because it reflects poorly on the state he loves. He says: "It is heartbreaking. It sucks. There's nothing about it that's good. Especially not for Virginia."

Both readily agree that if Gillespie had faced the same accusations any of the three men in power did months ago, he would be long gone.

University of Virginia political analyst Kyle Kondik says Northam remains in office for a number of reasons: "For one thing, Fairfax is even more toxic than he is, and the accusations against the lieutenant governor help insulate the governor. But I also think the governor surveyed the political climate and determined that he was better off staying in office than resigning. Northam did, in fact, face a lot of pressure to resign, but he weathered it and decided not to step aside in spite of it."

Northam could not have been forced from office short of impeachment, which is a step the legislature decided not to take.

Though he largely won on anti-Trump anger, he is now less popular than the president in the state, according to the latest Wason Center for Public Policy poll.

Both parties seem to be struggling with leadership voids. The Republicans haven't won a statewide election since 2009, and the Democrats have three statewide officeholders who are all damaged to some degree.

"The environment for the fall campaign is in flux," said Kondik. "On one hand, the Democrats are banking on the white-hot, anti-Trump intensity that fueled them in 2017 and 2018. On the other, they are hamstrung to some degree by the weakness of Northam and Fairfax, and there also were some questions about Democratic turnout without a major statewide race on the ballot."

But there's still plenty at stake. Kondik said: "Democrats need to net two seats apiece in the state Senate and state House of Delegates to elect a unified Democratic state government, which would be the most liberal state government in Virginia history."

Those gains will be easier if a new court-drawn House of Delegates map that unwinds a Republican gerrymander is indeed in place for the fall. But it's not a certainty that they can or will capitalize.

You have to think of Virginia voting patterns as several different regions, and the political divide in the state as being primarily east versus west.

Kondick said: "The eastern part of the state contains its so-called 'Urban Crescent,' the major population centers of Northern Virginia, Greater Richmond, and Hampton Roads. The western part of the state is largely rural, with some smaller cities and college towns serving as blue pockets in what is otherwise a red sea."

The Urban Crescent has been becoming more Democratic, and the western part has been becoming more Republican. There are many more votes in the eastern part of the state than the western, so this trade-off has worked out well for Democrats.

Pearce said that as an aspiring political operative, he thinks the Republicans' focus in his home state is that geography outside of the cities, just before the rolling hills of the farmland.

"You have to focus on suburbia, especially women, white women. And really, there's a great opportunity, especially for where I'm from, Hampton Roads, a great opportunity to target minority voters. There are so many minority voters in Norfolk, Hampton, Newport News, Portsmouth, and they're all stuck in the same rut. Democrats are just counting on them because of the color of their skin. I think that there's a great opportunity for votes there, but if Republicans can't win suburbia, there's no path for them in Virginia," he said.

"Even with the scandals," he said.

Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between. To find out more about Salena and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.

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