RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Republicans keep getting help from an unexpected source as they try to win over suburban voters unhappy with President Donald Trump: Virginia Democrats.
The latest instance was Tuesday’s victory by a former lawmaker who once spent his nights in jail and his days at the legislature because of a sex scandal involving a teenager. Joe Morrissey won a Democratic primary in a Richmond-area Senate seat despite a checkered record and his own party’s best efforts to keep him out of office. Gov. Ralph Northam, former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, and U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine all tried to help Morrissey’s opponent win.
Gleeful Republicans quickly signaled they plan to use Morrissey’s past scandals as a way to focus voters on more recent ones involving the state’s top three statewide Democrats.
“Congrats, Joe Morrissey! You’ll fit right in with Justin Fairfax,” the Republican Party of Virginia tweeted Tuesday, referring to the state’s embattled lieutenant governor who has been accused by two women of sexual assault.
Fairfax spokeswoman Lauren Burke decried the tweet.
“The party of Donald Trump, heavyweight champion of lying, incivility, and racial division, has forfeited its moral authority to comment on anyone,” Burke said.
Only four states are having legislative elections this year and Virginia is the only one where Democrats have a chance of flipping control of the House and Senate, where Republicans currently have narrow majorities.
Once a key swing state that’s been tilting increasingly toward Democrats, Virginia’s 2017 elections were an early warning signal that a blue wave of opposition to Trump would wash over the 2018 U.S. midterms. Suburban voters unhappy with Trump in northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and the Richmond area helped propel Democratic gains.
Since then, state Republicans have focused on trying to win some of those voters back with a slew of policy proposals like cutting taxes and freezing college tuition. But Republicans are also counting on a wave of scandals earlier this year involving the state’s top Democrats to help GOP candidates.
A racist yearbook photo that surfaced in February almost forced Northam from office. Fairfax was then accused by two women of sexual assault, which he denied. And Attorney General Mark Herring, after calling for Northam to resign, revealed that he wore blackface once in college.
The scandals have exposed deep divisions among Democrats and caused many awkward moments. The Democratic Party of Virginia, for instance, recently rejected a bid by Fairfax to sponsor a table at the party’s biggest fundraising dinner of the year.
Former Republican Del. Randy Minchew, who is trying to win back the northern Virginia seat he lost in 2017, said Morrissey’s victory won’t likely have a direct impact on his voters but could be a distraction for Democrats looking to move past their own troubles.
“I would not be surprised if he is a continuing thorn in the side of his party,” Minchew said.
Morrissey, who is white, has long been popular with Richmond-area black voters by emphasizing service to voters who felt long ignored at the state Capitol. Many of his backers call him “Fighting Joe.”
But he’s been a pariah among his own party for several years. In 2015, Morrissey spent time in jail while still being a member of the House of Delegates after being accused of having sex multiple times at his law office with a 17-year-old girl he hired as a receptionist. Morrissey denied wrongdoing but entered an Alford plea to a misdemeanor charge. In an Alford plea, a defendant does not admit guilt but acknowledges prosecutors have enough evidence for a conviction.
Morrissey has also been disbarred twice, including last year. But those troubles have not dampened his popularity.
“People try to blow things up more than what it is,” said Melvin Washington after he voted for Morrissey Tuesday. “Ain’t none of us perfect.”
Morrissey later married his receptionist and has three children with her, who featured prominently in his most recent campaign. His victory over incumbent Sen. Rosalyn Dance in Tuesday’s primary virtually assures he’ll win the general election in the heavily Democratic district.
Morrissey said in an interview with The Associated Press he expects to have a “powerful voice” in the Senate because he is not beholden to Democratic leadership. He has often been openly critical of Democrats, including criticizing a push earlier this year to loosen abortion regulations on late-term abortions.
“I’m a Democrat, but let me be very clear, I am going there with no IOUs,” Morrissey said.
He also predicted that Republicans would drop their attacks on him, saying he’s a proud father, loving husband and a living embodiment of the family values Republicans champion.
“There’s not an ounce of scandal, an ounce of embarrassment. Those folks are my heart, they are my life,” Morrissey said.
Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie contributed to this report.