RICHMOND — Virginia voters are evenly split over whether Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) should resign after two women accused him of sexual assault, according to a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday morning, with most voters saying the legislature should not consider impeachment proceedings until the claims have been investigated.
Two women, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson, have come forward this month to accuse Fairfax of sexual assault. He has strongly denied the allegations and says his encounters with the women were consensual.
Nearly all of Fairfax’s fellow Democratic elected officials have urged him to resign, but voters are divided over the question, 36 percent to 36 percent, and 28 percent have no opinion, the poll found.
A separate poll released Wednesday by Ipsos and the University of Virginia's Center for Politics found that 35 percent of Virginia adults said Fairfax should resign, compared with 25 who said he should not. Forty percent were unsure or reported no opinion.
The polls also asked voters about Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam (D), who has faced demands to resign since the Feb. 1 revelation of a racist photo on his 1984 medical school yearbook page.
Forty-two percent of voters in the Quinnipiac poll said theythought the governor should step down, and 48 percent said he should stay in office. That was slightly lower than the proportion calling for his resignation in a Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted in the first week after the scandal broke, which found voters split 47 percent to 47 percent. In the Ipsos/U.Va. poll, 43 percent said Northam should not resign, and 31 percent said he should.
Northam, who won the governor’s race by nine points in 2017, is viewed favorably by 36 percent of voters and unfavorably by 45 percent in the Quinnipiac poll. Sixteen percent have no opinion.
The survey found that 39 percent of voters approve of his job performance, compared with 44 percent who disapprove. That rating is much worse than his 24-percentage-point positive margin — 49 percent approval to 25 percent disapproval — in a Quinnipiac poll in June.
Fifty-one percent of voters in the Quinnipiac poll said they did not know whether to believe Fairfax or his accusers. Of those who had an opinion, 37 percent believed Tyson and Watson, and 12 percent believed Fairfax, the survey showed.
All three parties have called for an independent investigation, but the Virginia General Assembly has resisted undertaking what would be its first impeachment proceedings. Tyson, who accused Fairfax of assaulting her at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston, has said she will meet with prosecutors in Suffolk County, Mass., the jurisdiction in which Boston lies. Watson said Fairfax assaulted her in 2000 while they were students at Duke University.
Quinnipiac interviewed 1,150 registered Virginia voters Feb. 14 to 18 by cellular and landline phones in a survey that carried a 4.2-point margin of error. The Ipsos/U.Va. poll interviewed 636 Virginia adults Feb. 15 to 19 online and has a margin of error of four points. They are the first polls to survey voters after Fairfax’s second accuser went public, through her attorney, with her allegations.
Most voters, 84 percent in the Quinnipiac poll, said the Virginia House of Delegates, the chamber in which an impeachment process would start, should wait for an investigation before considering impeaching Fairfax.
Fewer than 1 in 4 voters agree with Fairfax’s claim that he is the target of a smear campaign, the source of which he has not identified. But African American voters and Democrats are more likely to believe him.
Views on whether Fairfax should step down split sharply by party, race and gender. A little more than half of Republicans, 52 percent, said Fairfax should resign, while 40 percent of independents and 24 percent of Democrats said he should.
Four in 10 white voters say Fairfax should resign, compared with a quarter of African Americans who say he should quit. About half of African American voters say Fairfax should stay in office. More men, 41 percent, than women, 32 percent, say Fairfax should resign.
The Democratic and Republican parties receive overwhelmingly negative marks in the poll, 57 percent and 63 percent, respectively, for handling the issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault in politics. Among independents, identical 61 percent majorities disapprove of each party.
However, only Democrats have adopted a zero-tolerance policy toward sexual assault, and they have widely accused President Trump and the national Republican Party of not taking the issue seriously.
The poll reflects the political paralysis that has gripped the state legislature in a scandal-ridden three-week period that started Feb. 1, when Northam apologized for the photo on his yearbook page that showed a person in blackface and a person dressed as a Ku Klux Klansman.
The next day, he said he was not in the photo, and he has resisted calls from state and national Democrats to resign.
Fairfax, like most elected to the part-time post of lieutenant governor, is generally not very well known. But he has more detractors than supporters.
While about half of voters said they had not heard enough about him to form an opinion, 36 percent had an unfavorable impression, compared with 11 percent who had a favorable view.
White voters in the Quinnipiac poll are split 46 percent to 46 percent on whether Northam should resign, but black voters say, by 56 percent to 31 percent, that he should not step down. That is similar to the result in the Post-Schar poll.
Partisanship is the biggest dividing line on Northam’s resignation, with 60 percent of Republicans saying he should resign vs. 43 percent of independents and 33 percent of Democrats saying he should go.
Most voters (54 percent) said Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D), who revealed that he dressed in blackface in college, should not resign, compared with 22 percent who said he should. A bigger majority (63 percent) said he should not be impeached, and 16 percent said he should be.
Herring has not received the same level of scrutiny for dressing in blackface as Northam has. Herring has said he darkened his skin to dress as the rapper Kurtis Blow for a 1980 college party when he was 19. Northam has said he did it to impersonate Michael Jackson in a dance contest around 1984.
Clement reported from Washington.