Northam is still wounded by a blackface scandal that almost cost him his job in February. But with campaign season in full swing during a crucial election year, he is far from the pariah that most people expected. Instead, Northam is making big donations to a few campaigns, attending fundraisers throughout the state and rallying fellow Democrats on issues such as health care and gun control.
Republicans have even eased up on the “Gov. Blackface” attacks that were common earlier in the spring and summer. GOP campaigns are now more likely to warn about Democrats pushing socialism than to call Northam a racist. Two Republicans involved with campaigns said internal polling has shown the Northam attacks were not helping them woo voters.
“That will not be a theme in any campaign I’m associated with,” said one of the Republicans, a strategist working with several candidates around the state who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
“Six months ago, [Republicans] thought they might be able to run against Ralph Northam, but polls have shown Northam has not suffered a great deal in the court of public opinion for his behavior in his 20s, and he hasn’t turned out to be the silver bullet that Republicans might have been hoping for,” said University of Mary Washington political scientist Stephen Farnsworth.
Northam will probably never escape the cloud of the events in February, when a photo surfaced from his 1984 medical school yearbook page showing one person in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan robes. Northam initially took responsibility for the photo and was poised to resign over the backlash.
Then, in one rollicking day, he said he wasn’t in the photo, promised to remain in office and admitted to darkening his face to imitate Michael Jackson in a dance contest later that same year. Neither Northam nor Eastern Virginia Medical School has been able to confirm who is in the picture or how it wound up on the future governor’s yearbook page, and Northam has said he was in shock and trying to do the right thing when he apologized for it.
Scandals quickly enveloped the other two Democrats in the executive branch — two women came forward to accuse Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexually assaulting them in the early 2000s, which he denies, and Attorney General Mark R. Herring admitted wearing blackface to imitate a rapper at a college party in 1980. But Northam’s downfall seemed at the time especially toxic for his party’s hopes in elections this fall.
All 140 seats in the General Assembly are on the Nov. 5 ballot. The balance of power is at stake, with Republicans clinging to majorities of 51 to 48 in the House of Delegates and 20 to 19 in the Senate, with one vacancy in each chamber.
Northam’s fundraising ability evaporated overnight. He stopped making public appearances. Republicans hardly had to say anything, as virtually all of the state’s Democrats — led by the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus — called on Northam to resign.
Today, the environment is sharply different. Several recent public polls have found that Virginians do not like Northam as much as before but approve of the job he is doing. Northam scored 37 percent approval vs. 29 percent disapproval among possible Virginia voters in a Roanoke College poll conducted last month. That was on track with the results of a Virginia Commonwealth University poll from June that found 37 percent approval among Virginia adults.
The VCU poll found that minorities were more likely to approve of Northam’s performance, at 44 percent, than whites, at 33 percent approval and 32 percent disapproval.
Northam’s term expires in 2022, and he is prohibited by law from seeking a second consecutive term.
The governor is far less toxic than President Trump, who continues to cast a shadow over Virginia Republicans with his low approval ratings in the state. The Roanoke College poll found that 27 percent of potential Virginia voters approved of Trump, vs. 53 percent who disapproved.
Officials in both parties, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss strategy, said their internal polling shows similar results: Northam is not beloved, but he is solid.
“We’re seeing the same rebound in numbers in job approval even if his image isn’t that great,” the Republican strategist said.
Looking around the state, this person said, Northam’s personal image took a beating among voters in the Richmond region but has strongly rebounded, while experiencing less of a dip in Hampton Roads. His image suffered the most in Northern Virginia, the strategist said, “but the environment [there] is overwhelmingly Democratic, so it doesn’t really matter.”
Across all those regions, though, job approval has been solid, “and voters care more about that and less about personal image,” the strategist said.
Another Republican involved with several campaigns said, “As Republican campaigns start to develop, you’re going to see them focus more on the kitchen-table-type issues than on Ralph Northam.”
One way Republicans are making use of the Northam scandal is calling out Democrats for taking donations from him when many of them had called on him to resign.
Northam’s political action committee has given about $350,000 to candidates and to the party’s combined campaign. While his numbers are lower than a sitting governor might usually produce — the PAC of his predecessor, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), gave 10 times that amount in the 2015 legislative races — Northam has seen the spigot turn back on after it went dry in February, according to a person familiar with his fundraising.
State Sen. Glen H. Sturtevant Jr., running in a competitive district in the Richmond suburbs, has repeatedly pressed his opponent to explain why she accepted $25,000 from Northam’s PAC after calling for him to resign.
“Northam Bought Her Silence,” one of the incumbent’s campaign mailers said, next to a reprint of the racist yearbook photo.
His opponent, Democrat Ghazala Hashmi, called for Northam’s resignation in the general flurry of early February. Asked this week whether she has reconsidered, Hashmi did not directly answer:
“I’m grateful to have his support for our shared goal of flipping this Senate District so we can work together to bring down the cost of healthcare and better fund our schools,” she said via email.
Northam has held fundraisers for candidates in Hampton Roads — parts of which he once represented in the state Senate — and for the opponents of two powerful Republicans: House Speaker Kirk Cox (R-Colonial Heights) and Appropriations Committee Chairman Chris Jones (R-Suffolk). Cox and Jones had been personally close with Northam but have been estranged since the scandals.
Northam was warmly received at the annual Labor Day picnic hosted by Scott, according to people who attended. Scott is African American and appeared with Northam at last month’s commemoration of the 400th anniversary of Africans arriving in bondage at what is now Fort Monroe. He, too, has called for Northam to resign. His campaign did not respond to requests for comment Friday.
Northam has been on a quest to repair his standing with African Americans since February. He drew several standing ovations for his remarks at the Fort Monroe ceremonies, highlighting a commitment to fighting for racial equity and improving public understanding of black history.
His supporters say those efforts, as well as his attempt to get the General Assembly to take up gun-control measures in the wake of the May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach, have helped improve Northam’s political stature.
A measure of that change came last week when Northam attended a symposium at Virginia Union University in Richmond. In February, Northam canceled an appearance there after students protested.
This time, students and faculty members welcomed Northam to a panel discussion about the role of historically black colleges and universities. After a few brief words of thanks, Northam spent the hour-plus event as a spectator, occasionally taking notes.
“Today he may have been exposed to something that helps him understand African Americans,” VUU President Hakim Lucas said in an interview, “particularly the young people who will be voting in this next election cycle.”
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.