RICHMOND, Va. - Virginia state Sen. Bryce Reeves was tempted to compare the Democratic scandals that exploded in Richmond to a circus, but the Spotsylvania Republican figured that would be unfair - to circuses.
"Circuses are fun," he said. And so, at a recent breakfast for Culpeper Republicans, where Reeves laid out plans to seek national GOP money for state legislative races, he said it was more like watching tabloid tv.
With the state's top three Democratic office-holders tainted by allegations and confessions, Republicans are making an aggressive push to defend their razor thin majority in the General Assembly - the only state legislature in the country where control is up for grabs in the fall. They are highlighting the Democrats' woes and portraying themselves as steady, practical leaders as they appeal to voters and donors.
"There's a lot of chaos on the other side. You just can't get around that," said House Speaker M. Kirkland Cox, R. "The Democrats are going to struggle because those scandals are still ongoing."
Republican prospects looked grim heading into an election year with all 100 seats in the House and all 40 in the Senate on the ballot. They'd lost every statewide race for a decade - a streak that, since President Trump's election, had begun spreading ominously to legislative and congressional seats in once-GOP friendly suburbs. With mere two-seat majorities in each chamber, many Republicans worried that they might not hang on.
That was before last month, when Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring admitted to wearing blackface as young men, and when two women accused Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax of sexual assault, which he denies.
All three Democrats remain in office.
"I think there's a new spring in our step," said Sen. William Stanley, R. "We may have thought we were down -- we never thought we were out -- but I tell you now, the party that is most scared is the Democrats. What you're going to see is the blue wave that turns into the blue riptide that carries them back out."
But Democrats, who in 2017 picked up 15 House of Delegate seats and last year flipped three congressional seats in long-red suburbs, said the anti-Trump energy that fueled those wins remains strong. Jake Rubenstein, spokesman for the Democratic Party of Virginia, expressed glee when Vice President Pence announced plans to headline a fundraiser for legislative Republicans in McLean next week.
"We welcome Donald Trump and Mike Pence to visit Virginia as many times as their schedules allow," Rubenstein said. "Virginia Democrats defeated Trump in 2016 and Trumpism in 2017 and 2018. We welcome the opportunity to send another message this November while we flip both chambers of the General Assembly."
Democrats also say legislators will be able to divorce themselves from the mess at the top of their party, in part because most have called for Northam and Fairfax to step down. (They have not done so with Herring, the only one of the three whose office would fall to Republicans if he resigned.)
The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee stands by its promise - made in December - to spend a combined $1 million on the House and Senate races.
"Virginia's changed so much, whether because of population change or Trump really being a polarizing figure," said Jessica Post, the group's executive director. "We think the chambers are eminently winnable."
Virginia is one of just four states with legislative races this year. The other three are not considered competitive, since Republicans enjoy hefty majorities in two (Louisiana and Mississippi), as Democrats do in the third (New Jersey). Cox was recently named co-vice chairman of the Republican Legislative Campaign Committee, a position expected help him bring more national money.
That said, Reeves said Virginia races have so far been a tough sell to national political donors more fixated on a presidential contest that's two years away.
"If you go north of here, they're only talking about 2020," said Reeves, who said he went to Washington recently for that purpose but declined to say with whom he met. "As we get later in the year, they'll start to see 2019 as a bellwether for 2020. . . . They really need to understand the balance is literally two votes and that the Democrats already have national money coming in and we haven't seen anything."
The stakes in Virginia are especially high because the legislature, along with the governor, will control the 2021 redistricting process that follows the 2020 census.
Matt Walter, president of the Republican State Leadership Committee, said the group will support Virginia Republicans, though it has not settled on a dollar figure.
"We are intently focused on Virginia," he said. "You have seen a real lack of leadership and some real unsettling conversations that have taken place based on the actions of the Democratic statewide elected officials, seemingly one after the other. And by contrast to that, . . . the speaker and the Senate Majority Leader [Thomas K. Norment, R)] were doing a very good job of not getting caught up in the more salacious elements of it, not getting caught up in the drama."
Just 15 minutes after gaveling out of this year's legislative session, House Republicans launched a blistering YouTube ad contrasting national coverage of the Democratic scandals with local TV reports on Republican legislation for school safety, tax cuts and autism.
"Virginia's choice is clear: chaos and embarrassment," a female narrator says, "or leadership and results."
Kathryn Gilley, spokeswoman for the House Democratic Caucus, said Republicans "want to rile up" conservatives and suppress Democrats' enthusiasm. But she said Virginia's executive branch woes pale beside those afflicting Trump's White House.
"There's no comparison," she said. "It's not just things in his past - like the recording of him bragging about sexually assaulting women - but policies [that are] reckless and harmful."
Republicans say they are not relying on scandal alone. Right after their November 2017 election losses, House Republicans started recruiting a more diverse slate of candidates for 2019. They hired a data vendor to do demographic analyses of districts they lost, then set out to find candidates better suited those areas.
Seven of their top 10 recruits are women or minorities. In suburbs where they fared poorly with both women and highly educated voters, they found female candidates with law degrees in a few cases, an MBA in another.
Heading into this year's legislative session, Republican leaders played up "kitchen table" issues thought to play well in the suburbs - such as college affordability, school safety, teen vaping - and sought to sidestep potentially divisive social issues. It was a strategy they have pursued since 2012, when Republicans backed a bill that would have required most women having an abortion to first undergo a vaginal ultrasound.
There was intense backlash over the invasive nature of the test, drawing national attention and ridicule from late-night comedians before it was amended to require an abdominal ultrasound instead. In a string of successful elections after that, Democrats used the episode to claim the GOP was waging a "war on women" - until Trump came along and supplanted that as their chief rallying cry.
As this year's legislative session unfolded, however, Republicans came to believe that abortion could be a winner for them with suburban moderates. Del. Kathy Tran. D, pitching a bill to loosen restrictions on late-term abortions when the mother's life or health is at risk, said the measure would allow a woman to terminate a pregnancy until the moment she gives birth. Her words, captured on video and circulated by Republicans, sparked outrage among many, including President Trump.
Northam, a pediatric neurologist, added to the furor in a radio interview with comments that Republicans took as an endorsement of killing live babies after delivery.
Though Tran later said she "misspoke" and Northam called the infanticide charge "disgusting," Republicans saw an opportunity to cast themselves as moderates on the issue - and Democrats as extremists.
Democrats, however, say abortion remains a winning issue for them among suburban women. They also say Republicans will pay a price for stopping Democratic bills to restrict guns, raise the minimum wage, pass the federal Equal Rights Amendment and ban anti-gay discrimination in housing and public employment.
Amid the national outcry over the Northam's abortion comments, someone supplied a right-wing political website with a racist photo from Northam's 1984 medical school yearbook page showing figures in blackface and Ku Klux Klan garb. That started the cascading scandals that soon engulfed the Democrats and gave new hope to Republicans.