Virginia's Line of Succession Is an Absolute Mess

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A historic political crisis is unfolding in Virginia, one where all three of the state’s top elected officials have faced calls for them to step down.

Here’s the current situation: Gov. Ralph Northam is still holding out amid calls to resign. He copped to wearing blackface at a party in med school after his yearbook page surfaced featuring a photo of two men, one in blackface and another in Ku Klux Klan garb. Under normal circumstances, this major scandal likely would’ve been resolved in a fairly straightforward way, with the governor resigning and the lieutenant governor assuming the office.

But Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax has problems of his own after two women went public with allegations of sexual assault and rape against him. Again, under more normal circumstances, it would seem obvious that Fairfax step down. But if both Northam and Fairfax resigned, that would make Virginia’s attorney general, Mark R. Herring, governor of the state. Except, yeah, Herring had his own blackface scandal.


This situation is complicated by the fact that while all three men have faced pressure to resign, none have done so thus far.

So here we are. Now what? How much further can this go? If one or any of the massive, scandal-prone idiots in charge of Virginia resigns, the order of succession calculus changes depending on who goes first and when they go. I ran a few scenarios by Kyle Kondik, the managing editor for Sabato’s Crystal Ball, which is run by the University of Virginia Center for Politics.


“Everything’s sort of on the table at this point,” Kondik said.

If all three top officials resign without replacements, then Kirk Cox, the Republican Speaker of the House of Delegates, would become governor. This scenario seems unlikely, as all three are still holding out. Cox, for his part, has said that he has never been in blackface, so at least there’s that.


If only Fairfax resigns, Northam would appoint his successor, who would serve until a special election for lieutenant governor could be held this November. Here’s Center for Politics Director Larry Sabato:


Kondik told Splinter that Fairfax’s resignation seems the most likely, as he faces potential legal action and serious allegations of sexual violence. If Northam were to resign after appointing Fairfax’s successor, the newly-appointed lieutenant governor probably becomes governor, but depending on the interpretation of state law, it could fall to Herring (According to the Washington Post, a newly-appointed lieutenant governor assuming the governorship could be perceived to not have the mandate of the people).

If Northam resigns and Fairfax is still in office, Kondik said Fairfax would become governor and serve the remainder of Northam’s term in office until 2021.


If Northam and Fairfax both resign without replacements but Herring hangs on, Herring would become governor and serve out the rest of Northam’s term in office. The new attorney general, meanwhile, would be chosen by the state legislature if it is in session, according to Kondik.

The Post compiled most of this information in flowchart form, which sort of makes sense, but still manages to be extremely confusing. The New York Times also has an explainer, which includes the observation that Northam probably can’t be impeached for his blackface scandal, which means that Herring, who got out in front of his blackface revelation, is probably—probably!—also safe from impeachment.


Do you understand it any better now? I hope so! I feel slightly more confident about knowing what is going to happen, but if the past week has been any indication, that could change 15 minutes after we publish this, depending on what skeletons are left lurking in these politicians’ closets.