When Ralph Northam and Justin Fairfax were embroiled in scandals earlier this year, Virginia politics and its Democrats were in chaos.
Gov. Northam was accused of appearing in a racist yearbook photo that showed a man donning blackface and another in full Ku Klux Klan regalia. Lt. Gov. Fairfax was accused of sexually assaulting two women. And, not helping matters any, Attorney General Mark Herring admitted he once wore blackface.
All faced calls to resign in February. All stayed put. And the path forward was unclear with an election looming in November.
Now nine months later, Virginia Democrats have a shot at taking both houses of the state Legislature in Tuesday's election, and, with Northam, Fairfax and Herring still in office and not on the ballot - full control of Virginia's government.
If they win, Democrats would be able to implement the state's policy agenda for the first time since they held both houses and the governorship in 1993 - a far cry from months earlier when the three Democrats in the executive branch faced the possibility of handing power over to next-in-line House of Delegates Speaker Kirk Cox, a Republican.
"I think people have really looked on," former Gov. Terry McAuliffe and Northam's predecessor told USA TODAY in an interview. "I think people realize people may have made mistakes years ago as it relates to the governor. He's been a good man."
Northam's image has certainly improved since the scandal. A recent Washington Post-George Mason University poll found 47% of Virginians approve of the job he's doing.
He and Herring have hit the campaign trail for candidates in recent weeks, and Northam's associated political action committee has donated more than $1.2 million in 2019 to the Democratic Party of Virginia and some of its candidates in tight races, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
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"We live in a very diverse society, and that's a good thing," Northam said at a recent campaign event in Virginia Beach, The Associated Press reported. "It's who we are. We're going to be inclusive. We're going to welcome people to Virginia."
Northam also delivered a keynote address at an August event marking when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619. The governor acknowledged his own "painful truths" concerning race at the event.
Despite the scandals, the party has a good chance of winning the state Senate and a shakier but still "better than even money" shot at the state House, says J. Miles Coleman, the associate editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball, which provides nonpartisan analysis on elections through University of Virginia's Center for Politics.
"We've seen for a while Virginia has kind of moved a bit more blue," Coleman said.
Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason, was cautious, though.
"It really depends on turnout," he said of Democrats' chances. "Historically, the Republicans have outperformed the polls in these off year elections."
The trouble for Democrats started with Northam. The governor apologized at first for the racist photo appearing in his 1984 medical school yearbook, then later said he did not believe he was in the photograph on a page under his name and admitted to once wearing blackface when dressing as Michael Jackson.
Investigation inconclusive: Was that Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in blackface photo? Investigation inconclusive
Fairfax appeared poised to take over had Northam stepped down, but he soon faced sexual assault allegations from two women, Vanessa Tyson and Meredith Watson, who came forward days after the Northam photo was published. Fairfax has vehemently denied the accusations.
Herring would be next in line, but amid the scandals, he also admitted to wearing blackface when he was younger.
The three men faced fierce backlash from within their own party, and prominent Democrats, including McAuliffe, former vice president Joe Biden, U.S. Senators Mark Warner and Tim Kaine and their House counterparts, called for resignations.
"Party members, especially candidates, were very worried about the political fallout from the scandals," Rozell said. "At the least, all in the party knew that they had lost a major asset in an election year."
The stakes, now, could not be higher. Democrats need only to flip two seats in the House of Delegates, which recently saw district lines redrawn favorably for Democrats, and one in the Senate (with Fairfax holding the tiebreaker) to, in effect, win full government control.
In the 2017 election, a name drawn from a bowl cemented Republican power over the House 51-49, and the GOP won a slim 21-19 Senate majority.
According to Coleman and Sabato's Crystal Ball's analysis, about a third of the House seats will be competitive this year, but more of those are held by Republicans. In the Senate, seven appear competitive, and they are all held by Republicans.
"The national conversation is going to be driving a lot of this," Coleman said. Some of those competitive seats are held by one party but in which the other party got more votes in during the 2016 presidential and 2017 gubernatorial elections.
"With very close partisanship between Democrats and Republicans, it is possible that any one or two races could be the difference for party control," Rozell said.
Democrats are also still riding anti-Trump sentiments, Coleman said. Northam's convincing win in 2017 over Republican Ed Gillespie was seen as a referendum on President Donald Trump's policies, and three Democrats beat out Republican incumbents in their 2018 U.S. House races.
"Everybody talked about what had happened in Virginia," McAuliffe said of the 2017 and 2018 elections. Going into 2019, he said, "Trump and (Vice President Mike) Pence are the greatest motivators we can have."
Just over half of Virginians listed Trump as "very important" to their vote in this election, compared to just over a quarter saying Northam was, in another recent poll from the Washington Post-George Mason.
"I'm not partisan, but if I had to pick I'd rather have Trump than Northam as a target," Rozell said.
Virginia's history: In blackface controversy, Virginia remains haunted by its Confederate past
However, Rozell doesn't see national politics as playing as much of a role in this election compared to recent years. Democrats know that if they win both legislative houses, they'll be able to enact the most progressive policy agenda the state has seen, he said.
"That's driving Democrats much more than wanting to make some statement against Donald Trump," he added.
Still, Northam has not been as visible as one might expect a statewide officeholder to be in this election, Rozell said. McAuliffe, who may be eyeing a 2021 run at governor, will have stumped at 131 events in this election as of Monday, playing a larger than typical role, Rozell said.
"Leave no doubt, these three men are hurt by that scandal," Rozell said. "But I don't think voters are blaming the local candidates."
Republicans, though, have tried to stress the Northam-Fairfax-Herring scandals in the election.
John Findlay, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia, called some Democrats "hypocrites" for their now apparent acceptance of the three men remaining in office.
"There's a word for people who would put political power ahead of victims' rights. And the word is monsters," Findlay said. "And if you're willing to say, 'I would much rather have Democrats in power even if it means keeping a potential rapist in office,' that's pretty morally outrageous."
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Republicans have tried to capitalize on the scandals, particularly the allegations against Fairfax, in campaign ads for close races. Findlay said that while the events from February may not be at the forefront of some voters' minds, Republicans are hopeful it could swing close seats.
Republicans, like Democrats, have also tried to promote other key issues to ignite their base. Findlay cited abortion and health care as two topics of concern to voters. And he fears what could happen with them should the other side win both houses.
"These ones are radical," he said of new Democrats running for office as opposed to what he saw as Virginia's "conservative Democrats" of years past.
McAuliffe cited similar issues as well as a push to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment.
Among both Democrats and Republicans, gun laws are the most important voting issues this election, according to the Washington Post-George Mason's polling.
In May, a shooting in Virginia Beach left 12 people dead in a municipal building and reignited debate around the state's gun laws.
Northam had called a special legislative session in July to consider a wide range of gun control measures, but Republicans adjourned it, rejecting all the proposals without a vote.
"We have an amazing opportunity to pass legislation to keep our families safe," said Dan Helmer, a Democrat who's vying to beat out Republican Del. Tim Hugo.
Hugo, who represents House of Delegates District 40, is one of the last Republicans in Northern Virginia, a now overwhelmingly blue region of the state. His district voted in favor of Hillary Clinton over Trump and Northam over Gillespie, and Hugo won by a slim majority in 2017.
Helmer is banking on the possibility of progressive policies in his district, which years ago was instead overwhelmingly red, to win out over any potential negatives of his party's scandals.
"What I'm hearing from voters is that they expect a new general assembly takes action in line with their values and works with whoever is in power to get that done," Helmer said.
Follow USA TODAY's Ryan Miller on Twitter @RyanW_Miller
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Blackface scandal, Northam: Virginia election may go way of Democrats