WASHINGTON – Democrats’ push for zero tolerance of sexual or racial transgressions forced out popular Minnesota Sen. Al Franken last year.
Now it could topple the top three state officials in Virginia, potentially putting a state that Democrats won in a 2017 anti-Trump landslide into Republican hands.
"It’s a tough situation, especially for a Democratic Party that prides itself in being one of inclusion," Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., said about what he called the "crisis" in Virginia.
In fact, Democratic congressional leaders were eager to change the subject Thursday.
“I’m not getting into that," Senate Minority Whip Dick Durbin told USA TODAY when approached in a Senate hallway. "I have so many things I’m working on. That’s not one of them."
Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring have admitted to wearing blackface in the 1980s and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax is denying accusations of a 2004 sexual assault. If all resign under pressure, the governorship would go to the speaker of the House of Delegates – who is Republican.
President Donald Trump threw salt in Democrats’ wounds, tweeting Thursday: “If the three failing pols were Republicans, far stronger action would be taken.”
In fact, Democrats argue the opposite is true. They believe they’ve gone after their own while Republicans stood by Trump through his controversial comments and confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh after he was accused of sexual assault.
"One thing we have done as Democrats is we have not hesitated to hold accountable people who violate our values, whether they're Republicans or Democrats," Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez told NPR this week. "And that's a big difference between us and the Republican Party."
But now, Democrats are in a no-win situation, said Larry Sabato, head of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.
"The Democrats are taking this stand because they’re trying to draw the sharpest contrast with Donald Trump and members of his party," he said.
Also, the party base – which marched, knocked on doors, contributed to candidates and went to the polls with extra enthusiasm last year to win the House and make big gains in state offices – demands it.
"The downside is, any time an allegation is raised, the suggestion is that the individual should resign," Sabato said.
Franken, a major fundraiser and campaigner for the party, stepped down last year after more than a half-dozen women said he had touched them improperly or made unwanted sexual advances.
Franken was pressured to resign by more than 30 of his colleagues in a charge led by New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand.
But some prominent Democratic donors were angry at what they saw as a rush to judgment against Franken, telling Politico and other news outlets that they would no longer help Gillibrand, who is now running for the 2020 Democratic nomination for president.
"If we set this precedent in the interest of demonstrating our party's solidarity with harassed and abused women, we're only going to drain the swamp of people who, however flawed, still regularly vote to protect women's rights and freedoms," Kate Harding, co-editor of "Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump's America," wrote in an opinion piece in The Washington Post.
In addition to having called on Northam to resign, both Gillibrand and California Sen. Kamala Harris – another 2020 hopeful – want an investigation into the sexual assault allegations against the lieutenant governor.
His accuser, Vanessa Tyson, says Fairfax forced her to perform oral sex during an encounter at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. Fairfax said the accusations against him are false and that the entire encounter was consensual.
Gillibrand and Harris called Tyson's account credible.
"In this country, institutional bias stacks against survivors, for the powerful," Gillibrand tweeted. "We have to support survivors first so their claims can be fully investigated."
I support Dr. Tyson. She showed enormous courage in coming forward, and her very credible claims require investigation. In this country, institutional bias stacks against survivors, for the powerful. We have to support survivors first so their claims can be fully investigated.
— Kirsten Gillibrand (@SenGillibrand) February 7, 2019
In another bit of bad optics for Democrats, Tyson is being represented by the same law firm that helped Christine Blasey Ford when she testified against Kavanaugh.
"They only believe, I guess, those accusations if they are against Republicans," White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders said of Democrats on Fox News Monday.
For now, the pressure to resign is focused on Northam.
"I don't believe we can continue to speak forcefully, as we must, against the regular bigotry of Donald Trump ... unless we hold all our officials to a high standard," Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett said on CNN Monday.
Former Virginia Rep. Jim Moran was a rare Democrat arguing that Northam deserves a second chance.
"I wish Al Franken had hung in there because I think a strong male voice arguing on behalf of respect of women and their rights might have been more effective," he said on CNN Monday. "I want us to be pragmatic about this."
More: 'Tumultuous': Virginia politics in chaos amid Northam, Fairfax and Herring scandals
Republicans, who are pounding away at Democrats to oust all three Virginia officials, deny that they're being hypocritical.
Ronna McDaniel, head of the Republican National Committee, has pointed to the fact that the party recently stripped Iowa Rep. Steve King of his committee assignments after he asked when the term "white supremacist" had become offensive. And Republicans denounced a Holocaust denier who won the GOP nomination for a House seat in Illinois last year.
"We're quick to denounce candidates who say bad things," McDaniel told NPR Monday.
But Sabato, the University of Virginia political scientist, said those few exceptions don't make up for the way Republicans have stood behind Trump through his comments degrading women and immigrants while not explicitly condemning white supremacists.
"Whether it's sexual misadventures or racism," Sabato said, "Donald Trump is Exhibit A."
And with the 2020 presidential election looming, Democrats are eager to maintain the high ground, making the Virginia situation even trickier.
When USA TODAY started to ask Durbin, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, about the news coming out of Virginia he cut in: “Oh I’m not talking Virginia, I’m from Illinois.”
He continued to dodge questions about Fairfax’s accuser and her credibility from another reporter.
“I don’t know. I don’t know her,” a frustrated Durbin said.
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus said Thursday they didn’t expect the scandal in Virginia to damage the Democratic party.
“That’s Virginia and that’s Virginia’s mess that they have to deal with,’’ said Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., former chairman of the caucus. “It’s three individuals. It’s not a party. It’s not an epidemic. It’s three people, one of which (faces) a very serious allegation, but the other two decided to do some really dumb things. Period.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., likewise rejected the suggestion that the controversy in Virginia hurts Democrats' brand.
“No, no it does not," she told reporters Thursday.
But she also appeared eager to stay out of the mess.
"I’ll leave that up to them," Pelosi said. "I have enough to do out here without getting involved in the affairs of Virginia.”