Virginians appear to be a forgiving lot. A clutch of fresh polling data, from Quinnipiac University and Ipsos/UVA Center for Politics, shows folks don’t think Gov. Ralph Northam (D) should resign or be impeached for wearing blackface back in the 1980s.
Does that mean his ersatz rope-a-dope strategy is working? Maybe — for now. But even as Virginians appear willing to allow Northam to hang around — be it through a sense of forgiveness or exhaustion — that doesn’t mean he’s on the road to political rehabilitation.
If anything, Northam is being tolerated because there is no viable alternative waiting to take his place.
That ought to worry Northam, who hopes to run out the clock on his scandal, and his fellow Democrats, who hope to take control of the General Assembly in November.
On the big issue — whether he should leave office now — 48 percent of respondents in the Quinnipiac poll said Northam should not resign, as did 43 percent in the Ipsos/Center for Politics poll.
Not great numbers, but not terrible, either. Except when we put them in a bit of historical context.
Back in 2013, when then-Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) faced the possibility of a federal indictment on corruption charges, a Quinnipiac poll conducted in late July showed McDonnell’s favorability rating stood at 46 percent. Had the scandal hurt? Yes. A May Washington Post poll showed McDonnell’s approval numbers in the low 60s.
But Quinnipiac found just 16 percent Virginians thought McDonnell should resign. Sixty-one percent said he should stay in office.
The public didn’t believe either man had handled his respective scandal very well. But even here, McDonnell, who faced real legal peril, fared much better than Northam does today.
The Quinnipiac numbers from 2013 showed 41 percent of respondents were “not satisfied with the way [McDonnell] is handling the controversy surrounding him.”
In the new Quinnipiac poll regarding Northam, voters “disapprove 69-20 percent of the way he is handling the controversy involving him wearing blackface.”
And the hits just keep coming for the current incumbent. In the Ipsos/Center for Politics poll, just 17 percent approve of Northam’s performance as governor.
How does all of this affect Northam’s belief that he is the ideal person to heal Virginia’s troubled soul?
Virginians aren’t buying it, Ralph. According to the Quinnipiac data, “Northam is not the right person to work to heal racial divisions in Virginia, voters say 54-32 percent.”
What keeps Northam in office is the even more ambivalent attitude Virginians have toward the man who would replace Northam should he resign: Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D).
The Ipsos/Center for Politics poll found 35 percent overall wanting Fairfax to resign, “but with another 34% of respondents saying they weren’t sure one way or the other.”
Fairfax fared worse in the Quinnipiac data, with just 12 percent of respondents believing his denials of sexual assault allegations and the majority, 51 percent, undecided.
Voters aren’t eager to impeach Fairfax. Eighty-four percent want the House of Delegates to wait for an investigation of the allegations before considering impeachment.
Barring any new revelations, allegations, or an investigation, neither Fairfax nor Northam is going anywhere, for now.
Which brings us to November.
In an exchange between Del. Todd Gilbert and Del. Alfonzo Lopez over legislation banning the creation of sanctuary cities, Lopez said the Republican bill was a “dog whistle” intended to “stoke fear of the other.”
According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s Graham Moomaw, Gilbert said “[i]f our friends in the Democratic caucus want to talk about racism, they need to clean up their own house first,” a not-so-veiled reference to Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring, who also appeared in blackface decades ago.
It’s easy to dismiss any elected Republicans’ retorts on race while the stench of Corey A. Stewart still hangs over the GOP.
But it’s also not hard to see how Northam’s problems complicate the Democratic narrative, and make him, like McDonnell in 2013, a liability on the statewide campaign trail.