The Democratic Party of Virginia was engulfed in a full-blown political crisis Wednesday, as a series of scandals tarnished the Commonwealth's three top Democratic leaders and threatened to reverse the historic gains the party has achieved in the state in recent years.
With Attorney General Mark Herring acknowledging that he wore blackface at a fraternity party nearly 30 years ago, Democrats were unsure whether he, Gov. Ralph Northam or Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax would remain in office after scandals that could alienate the party's base of support.
While the ultimate damage remains unclear, a sense of despair permeated a party that only days ago believed it was on the cusp of winning majorities in both houses of the General Assembly in the fall and cementing its control of the state.
"This is just devastating," said Ben Tribbett, a Fairfax-based Democratic strategist. "After a nuclear bomb goes off, it's not always better to be a survivor. We look terrible, and everyone knows it. There's no scenario where things get fixed. Humpty Dumpty doesn't get put back together again."
The nature of the scandals engulfing the three Democrats - two involving racially offensive imagery, the other an alleged sexual assault - seem likely to alienate black and female voters, two of the Democrats' core constituencies. "We have been carried by our base," Tribbett said, "and you're not going to have energy in your base with something like this going on."
Already reeling from the scandals involving Northam and Fairfax, Kim Drew Wright, a Democratic activist based in Chesterfield County, a suburb just outside Richmond, learned from a reporter the latest news about Herring.
"Are you friggin' kidding me?" asked Wright, who founded the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County, a grass-roots group that two years ago helped Democrats win a majority in the historically conservative county for the first time since the early 1960s.
As upsetting as the scandals may be, Wright said it would not deter her from working to elect Democrats and oppose a Republican Party led by President Donald Trump.
"I'm not happy about it, but I'm not going to roll over and play dead," Wright said.
As the new year began, Democrats in Virginia had an abundance of reasons to preen. A trio of Democrats, who knocked off Republican incumbents, was about to begin representing the commonwealth in Congress.
And Northam could tout an impressive litany of first-year accomplishments, including Medicaid expansion and Amazon's decision to bring a haul of jobs to Crystal City.
But over the past week, as the scandals have battered the governor, Fairfax and Herring, Democrats have found themselves in the throes of a political cataclysm, one that has halted the party's momentum, unleashed a spasm of fighting among its leaders and renewed Republicans' hopes of remaining competitive in a state that seemed increasingly cold to their message.
Urged to resign by the Democratic establishment, Northam has refused to relinquish his seat after reversing his assertion that he was in a photo that appears on his medical school yearbook page of someone dressed in blackface and another in a KKK outfit. But the governor's reputation has been severely damaged, raising concerns that he won't be able to raise money for Democratic candidates.
On Monday, Fairfax implied during a news conference that Northam's allies may have been behind the leaking of allegations that he assaulted Scripps College Professor Vanessa Tyson in 2004. Moments later, he implied that the culprit may have been Democratic Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney, a protege of former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, also a Democrat.
Despite the chaos enveloping the party, Democrats insist that it's premature to predict what will happen in November. They point, perhaps as a source of comfort, to scandals that did not result in parties losing power, such as when then-Republican Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina acknowledged an extramarital affair.
Not only did Sanford completed his term, but he was succeeded by Republican Nikki Haley. Sanford was subsequently elected to Congress.
Rep. Gerald Connolly, D-Va., who has demanded Northam's resignation, acknowledged that Democratic voters in Virginia "feel angry, embarrassed, anxious and betrayed."
But he said he expected that they would still turn out in large numbers in November, as they have in recent election cycles as the state has grown increasingly Democratic. "These fundamentals have not changed because Ralph Northam has a problem," Connolly said. "I say that it's way too early to make that judgment."
Something else that hasn't changed is that Trump remains the Republicans' leader, a role that is likely to continue to incite Democratic voters no matter the purported failings of their own party's top officials, said Dave "Mudcat" Saunders, a Democratic strategist based in southwestern Virginia.
"Everyone's in a hissy, they're upset and nervous, but everyone needs to slow down a bit," Saunders said of the Democrats. "The yellow dog Democrats are still going to show up. They're still enthusiastic, they still want to get rid of Trump. There's an absolute disdain for Trump."
Nevertheless, the Democrats' implosion was a source of renewed hope for Republicans, who haven't won a statewide race in Virginia since 2009.
After he came forward, Virginia Republicans were as stunned as their Democratic counterparts.
"What was a slow-moving train wreck is now like a bullet train wreck," said Chris LaCivita, a Republican strategist and veteran of numerous Virginia political wars. "The reports of Republicans' demise in the Commonwealth of Virginia have been greatly exaggerated."
He said the scandals provide Republicans with an opportunity, but one they have to approach with care. "Don't gloat, don't overplay your hand," he said. "At the end of the day, voters want candidates who speak to their concerns and issues. You can't run campaigns in the modern age based solely on the fact that a party's top messengers have problems."
Dan Scandling, a Republican and former aide to then-Rep. Frank Wolf, R-Va., said that before the scandals, Republicans were facing a "long slow walk in the wilderness. As long as President Trump was on top of the ticket, everything was going to cascade down from the White House and be a hundred pound weight on your head."
Now, Scandling said, "the window of opportunity is back open."
"The swing voters are going to tap the brakes now," he said. "And the minority community is going to look at the Democrats and say, 'Really?' Have you been pulling the wool over our eyes all these years?' "
At the very least, the scandals befalling the Democrats may make it more challenging for the party's candidates to claim the moral high ground as it has to counter Trump, himself the target of accusations over the years that he is racist and sexist.