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By Allan Smith
As the three highest-ranking Democrats in Virginia remain embroiled in one of the state’s biggest political scandals in years, Republicans have mostly refrained from twisting the knife.
With the exception of a small handful of national Republicans, the party has largely reacted with caution to the revelations of a blackface photo on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s 1984 medical school yearbook page, which he has disavowed, or two women’s claims that they were sexually assaulted years ago by Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who denies the allegations. President Donald Trump, though he has repeatedly weighed in, has not called for any resignations.
Many prominent Democrats, on the other hand, have called for the leaders to leave office.
It might be difficult for the GOP to lead such a charge given that the party’s top official, Trump, has faced multiple allegations of sexual harassment and accusations of racism, which he has repeatedly denied. The party also mounted a strong defense of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who during his confirmation last fall faced — and emphatically denied — accusations of sexual assault that allegedly took place when he and his accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, were in high school.
Some Republicans say the party should stay ideologically consistent with views the GOP has espoused over the past few years, whether it be calling for due process regarding allegations of sexual misconduct or not allowing someone’s poor judgment from decades ago to lead to the end of his or her career.
Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist and former Trump White House official, told NBC News “it’s right for Republicans to remain consistent, not rush to judgment, give people due process.”
“At the same time, I also think it’s right for Republicans to force the media, to force the left, to live by the same standards they force Republicans to live by,” he added.
Terry Sullivan, campaign manager for Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential run, told NBC News that he believes “Republicans are being much more intellectually honest surrounding these scandals in Virginia.”
“The pendulum is starting to swing back a bit on the rush to judgement for public figures over the last two years,” Sullivan said. “Some very bad people have deservedly had the very terrible things they’ve done exposed, and paid the price. But I think there may be a public sense that in some cases there has been a rush to judgement that was not just. … Americans as a whole are becoming a little more cautious about rushing to judgement until all the facts are out.”
When asked last week about the scandals in Virginia, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said “the people of Virginia seem to be taking good care” of the controversy.
Mentioning Fairfax, Graham — a vocal defender of Kavanaugh during his confirmation process — said “you’ve got to have the facts” before making a judgment.
“The accusation can’t be self-proving,” he told reporters before a second woman accused Fairfax of sexual assault. “I don’t know the lieutenant governor, but just put yourself in his shoes. I mean, how do you defend yourself over something that’s 15 years old and there are really no facts to support the allegation? I just don’t believe the allegation to be self-proving.”
In commenting on the scandal, Trump first criticized the campaign of Northam’s Republican opponent in the 2017 governor’s race, Ed Gillespie, for not unearthing the material during the race.
But Trump also said that if the politicians “were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken.” The president called Northam’s walk-back of his initial admission that he appeared in the yearbook photo “unforgivable” and claimed “African Americans are very angry at the double standard on full display in Virginia!”
In discussing the Virginia scandal with NBC News, Republicans repeatedly brought up the perception of a double-standard in the reactions to similar allegations against Democrats and Republicans.
Former GOP congressman and conservative radio host Joe Walsh told NBC News: “It’s easy to look at this and say, ‘Look at the Democrats, ha ha ha.’ I don’t think we should do that. I think we should be more objective and this whole game of gotcha, I think we’ve got to stop and look at the broader principle.”
“Let’s hold the Democrats to the same standard we want to be held to and not just look for a political advantage,” he added.
While many prominent Virginia and national Democrats have called for Northam and Fairfax to step down, both men said they will not.
In a clip of a “CBS This Morning” interview that aired Sunday, Northam again said he wouldn’t resign and instead looked to “heal” the state. Northam had initially apologized for the photo, which featured one person in blackface and another wearing Ku Klux Klan robes, but said the next day that he wasn’t in the photo and didn’t know why it was on his page. However, he admitted to once wearing blackface as part of a Michael Jackson costume for a dance competition the same year the yearbook was published.
Fairfax, meanwhile, has hired Kavanaugh’s legal team even as one of his accusers has sought the counsel of the lawyers who represented Blasey Ford. He is accused by Meredith Watson of raping her when they were students at Duke University in 2000 and by Virginia Tyson of forcing her to perform oral sex in 2004 while they were at the Democratic Convention in Boston.
Fairfax has emphatically denied both women’s allegations and is calling for an FBI investigation into the accusations.
Both women, meanwhile, would testify at impeachment proceedings, their attorneys said.
At the moment, however, there appears to be little support for impeachment. On Monday, Virginia Democratic Del. Patrick Hope backed off his promise to quickly introduce an impeachment measure against Fairfax if he didn’t step down.
Democrats haven’t been as vocal in calling for the official second in line to the governorship, Attorney General Mark Herring, to resign after he admitted to wearing blackface when he was 19. Herring initially called on Northam to resign before making his admission, which included a profuse apology.
Late last week, a top Virginia Republican was touched by the scandal as well. State Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment was found to have been a top editor of a 1968 Virginia Military Institute yearbook that featured photos of students in blackface as well as the use of racially offensive terms. Norment was not pictured in any of those photos and said in a statement that “blackface is abhorrent” and “I emphatically condemn it.”
Should all three Democrats resign, Virginia House Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican, would become governor based on the line of succession.