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How Ralph Northam Won

The Virginia governor appeared in blackface and is going to survive the scandal.
February 21, 2019
How Ralph Northam Won
(Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Remember Ralph Northam? When reports first broke earlier this month that the Virginia governor’s medical school yearbook page featured a picture of someone in blackface standing with someone in a Klan Kostume, and he said he was the guy in blackface, but then rescinded this admission, and then held a crazy press conference where he almost moonwalked for reporters before being saved by his wife—well, the political consensus was that Northam’s career was dead in the water. Practically his entire state’s Democratic apparatus turned on him in a heartbeat. So pervasive were the calls for his resignation that some pundits prematurely congratulated the party for expunging him.

There was only one problem: As Jonathan Last pointed out at the time, Northam himself had no incentive to resign. Instead he’s chosen to stick it out and try to make amends for his past misdeeds—whatever they were—from the comforts of the governor’s mansion. Three weeks later, the governor is weakened—his approval rating in-state has cratered to 17 percent—but he seems to have weathered the worst, and the national media has moved on, as is their wont.

It thus now falls to state legislators to decide whether they’ll go to the trouble of turfing the guy out of office. As it turns out, that’s a vanishingly unlikely proposition.

By way of preamble, it’s important to note that the Virginia Senate can’t just impeach Northam for being an embarrassment. According to the Virginia state constitution, grounds for impeachment include “malfeasance in office, corruption, neglect of duty, or other high crime or misdemeanor.” Northam’s apparent blackface antics from decades ago may have robbed him of his moral authority as the state’s highest elected official, but it probably doesn’t satisfy any of those particular standards.

This—and the fact that Virginia governor’s are limited to one term—partially explains why prominent lawmakers such as Republican Kirk Cox, the speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates, have stopped short of calling for Northam’s impeachment, preferring instead to suggest he should resign: “I think there’s a rightful hesitation about removal from office, because obviously you have to consider that to some degree you’re overturning an election,” Cox said earlier this month. “That’s why we have called for the resignation. We hope that’s what the governor does. I think that would obviously be less pain for everyone.”

However, questions about legal standards for impeachment are secondary. You only get to them if you begin with the political will for impeachment in the first place. So far, it seems there isn’t any. And that’s for two reasons: Justin Farifax and political expediency.

If Northam was impeached, Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax would be his replacement. And a few days after the Northam scandal erupted, even more serious accusations came to light about Fairfax allegedly having sexually assaulted two women in the early 2000s.

More than anything else, it’s the allegations against Fairfax—which he denies—that have brought the momentum against Northam to a screeching halt. It’s not just that Northam’s offense pales in comparison to the crimes Fairfax is accused of—although lawmakers justifiably balk at the prospect of trading in the former for the latter. “If Fairfax had not had a scandal, he would be governor right now,” Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato told The Bulwark. “Because the pressure on Northam would have grown, not diminished. It was the Democrats backing off, realizing they were about to install a governor who was essentially being accused of rape by two women. You think it’s bad now? Imagine what would’ve happened under that condition.”

Just as important is the air of uncertainty the Fairfax scandal has sown. At least some of the facts in Northam’s case are clear: He admits he wore blackface at least once during his youth. Meanwhile, the allegations against Fairfax are a nightmare of he-said, she-said uncertainty, the facts of which may never be fully established.

If it were the governor who was accused of the greater crime and his potential successor who was accused of the lesser, you could easily see how lawmakers might argue that the prudential thing to do would be to impeach the governor, out of an abundance of caution if nothing else.

As things are, however, lawmakers are frozen in a very hard spot: Unable to move against Fairfax until the accusations against him are fully evaluated, and unable to move against Northam until the Fairfax situation is fully resolved.

The other reason lawmakers are unlikely to move against Northam is that 2019 is an election year for state lawmakers in Virginia, and neither party thinks it helps their electoral case to make impeaching Northam their project this year.

“The instant this assembly adjourns, which ought to be sometime this weekend, they’re off campaigning,” Sabato told The Bulwark. “The last thing they want to do is to get involved with this if they can avoid it, or have an impeachment trial, or anything else. That will be the next decision-making point, unless it’s something happening to Fairfax, in November.”

And once the election’s over? Well, then each party will have a new reason to want to keep Northam around. If Democrats retake control of the state government, they may very well reason that Northam’s threat to the party has passed—after all, he’s not likely to be a bigger drag in 2020 than he was in 2019. Meanwhile, if Republicans manage to retain control, Northam’s stumbles will likely have been a significant reason why—and they’re unlikely to take a desperately unpopular Democrat out of the public eye any sooner than they can help it by trying to impeach him.

All of which is to say that it’s a perfect storm of unaccountability in Virginia: Northam has less and less motivation to step down every day. And no one in a position to push him has the incentive to do so. Which means the likeliest scenario by far is that the governor, blackface or no blackface, will be around for the remainder.

Andrew Egger

Andrew Egger was a senior writer at The Bulwark.