RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam, who rode an anti-Donald Trump wave to Virginia’s Executive Mansion in 2017, is less popular after a February blackface scandal than the president he famously called a “narcissistic maniac,” a poll finds.
Just 40 percent of Virginia voters approve of the governor, a Democrat who enjoyed the support of 59 percent as recently as December. By comparison, 44 percent support Trump, who lost the state by five points to Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Despite Northam’s precipitous decline in popularity, 52 percent of voters think the governor should remain in office. Forty-two percent say he should resign, according to a survey released Tuesday by Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Public Policy.
Even with Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) and Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) engulfed in scandals of their own, the broader Democratic brand does not appear to have taken a hit, according to the survey.
Asked which party they want to control the legislature after elections this fall, 46 percent said Democrats, 42 percent said Republicans, and 5 percent said they want control split between the parties.
Asked which party cares about the middle class, the working class, the poor, African Americans, women, men and children, voters chose Democrats in every category but one — they said Republicans care about men.
The results could signal trouble for the GOP, which has been hoping the Democratic disarray would help it keep its thin majorities in the General Assembly in November, when all 100 seats in the House of Delegates and all 40 in the state Senate will be on the ballot.
At the same time, the results could be a warning for Democrats, who have relied on opposition to the president to drive up turnout in off-year elections and turn suburban swing districts blue. As the party’s genial pediatrician-governor saw his poll numbers plummet, Trump’s ticked up four points.
Nearly a quarter of registered voters appeared to be unaware of Northam’s blackface scandal, which drew national and international attention. Twenty-three percent said they could not recall hearing any news related to the governor recently, according to the survey.
The survey, which has a margin of error of plus or minus three percentage points, is based on 1,067 interviews of registered voters on cellphones and landlines. It was conducted March 11-31.
In a single week at the start of February, Northam and Herring admitted to wearing blackface as young men, and two women alleged that Fairfax sexually assaulted them in the early 2000s. The lieutenant governor has insisted that encounters with the women were consensual.
The poll was conducted before “CBS This Morning” aired interviews with Fairfax’s accusers on two consecutive days last week. It concluded on the day Fairfax announced that he had taken and passed polygraph tests that he said prove his innocence. The survey’s release comes a week after Northam pulled off several wins with the legislature during a one-day session Wednesday, including a major transportation package.
All three men remain in office.
National and state-level Democrats swiftly called for Northam to resign Feb. 1, when a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page surfaced. The governor initially took responsibility for the image. The next day, he said he was not in the photo but admitted that he darkened his face in 1984 to imitate Michael Jackson for a dance contest.
Democrats also demanded that Fairfax resign days later after Vanessa Tyson said Fairfax sexually assaulted her at the Democratic National Convention in 2004 and Meredith Watson said he assaulted her in 2000 when they were undergraduates at Duke University.
Herring has not faced the same pressure to step down, although he initially called for Northam to resign — only to admit days later that he wore blackface while dressed at age 19 as a rapper for a party in college. The Republican Party of Virginia urged Herring to resign; he is the only one of the three whose replacement would be chosen by the GOP-controlled legislature.
Herring appears to have sustained the least damage, according to the survey. He may have benefited from timing, with Fairfax’s second accuser emerging days after Herring’s admission, shifting attention back to the lieutenant governor. And some said Herring handled his apology better than the other two.
Voters are closely divided over whether Fairfax should stay in office, with 45 percent saying he should and 42 percent saying he should step down. In Herring’s case, 64 percent say he should stay, and 28 percent say he should go.
Before the scandals, both men were eyeing a run for governor in 2021 — Herring had announced his candidacy in late 2018.
“Probably because of the nature of the sexual assault allegations against him, Justin Fairfax appears more damaged than Mark Herring,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center.
Fairfax’s disapproval rating rose from 13 percent in December to 39 percent in the new survey. Herring’s went from 17 percent to 28 percent.
The poll also questioned voters on abortion, an issue that triggered the avalanche of scandals and is expected to be emphasized by both parties in the fall elections.
Northam’s yearbook photo surfaced after freshman Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax), pitching a bill to ease restrictions on late-term abortions, said the measure would allow a woman to terminate a pregnancy until the moment she gives birth. Northam, a pediatric neurologist, added to the furor in a radio interview with comments that Republicans took as an endorsement of killing delivered babies. Northam called the infanticide charge “disgusting” but refused to clarify his comments.
The poll quizzed voters on abortion and said it found the “classic bell curve,” with 12 percent saying it should be legal and unrestricted in all cases and 9 percent saying it should be illegal in all cases. In between, 20 percent say it should be legal in all cases but with some limitations in later stages of pregnancy.