What Virginia's legislative elections could spell for 2024 on abortion rights
Updated November 7, 2023 at 1:52 PM ET
Abortion rights has been a winning issue for Democrats across the country since the U.S. Supreme Court'slandmark ruling overturning Roe v. Wade. In Virginia, Republican candidates are test driving a new messaging strategy around abortion as voters decide whether to maintain divided state government.
Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who won in an upset in 2021, is leading messaging around abortion for Virginia Republicans. They have adopted much of his position: a 15-week abortion ban, which includes exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother.
His strategy is aimed at combating the image of the GOP as extreme on the issue, something that helped Democratic candidates in the 2022 midterm elections. Virginia Democrats, energized by the fall of Roe, won key areas that Youngkin had previously carried.
The Virginia Senate is controlled by Democrats, which means they can block Youngkin and House Republicans' attempts to put new restrictions on abortion. Currently, abortion is largely accessible under Virginia law until the third trimester. At that point, the procedure is restricted to cases where three doctors certify the mother is substantially at risk by continuing the pregnancy.
All 140 seats across Virginia's two legislative chambers are up for grabs this cycle, with suburban districts making up key battleground seats.
Youngkin has been stumping for Republican candidates, driving home the significance of the elections.
"Folks, we got work to do — and that work is holding the House, and flipping the Senate," he said while campaigning for three candidates in the suburbs west of deep blue Richmond, which are more politically mixed and a key stop on the path to a majority in Virginia's General Assembly.
Youngkin's PAC put $1.4 million behind an ad early on in the campaign focused on his new abortion message.
"Here's the truth, there is no ban," says a voice in the ad. "Virginia Republicans support a reasonable 15-week limit."
Youngkin — and other GOP candidates — pitch this stance as a commonsense, reasonable and consensus approach to abortion measures.
"I think this is one where Virginians come together around reasonableness," Youngkin told ABC's This Week.
It's a message echoed by Republican Siobhan Dunnavant, who's running for reelection to the state Senate.
"I think people assume that Republicans all have one opinion on [a] ban," she told NPR. "I think we should keep abortion legal with enough time for a woman to have the opportunity to consider her choices. This is a real challenge for women."
Dunnavant is a practicing OB-GYN. She aligns with Youngkin's support for a 15-week limit on abortion as long as it includes certain exceptions. She voted against a proposed bill earlier this year because it didn't include an exception for fetal anomalies, which are often detected after 15 weeks.
She insists setting limits isn't the same as instituting a ban.
"'Ban', if you look it up in the dictionary, means none, prohibited. That's fearmongering language they're using," said Dunnavant of her Democratic opponent.
Ninety-three percent of abortions took place before 13 weeks, according to 2020 data from the CDC, with 6% between 14 and 20 weeks. Abortion advocates say the most affected by a potential 15-week ban are those who have pregnancies with fetal anomalies, and those who are rural, poor or experiencing domestic partner abuse.
Democrats make abortion number one campaign issue
Democrats have made abortion rights a centerpiece in their campaign. Groups against new restrictions have poured millions into ads, and Democratic candidates mention abortion in more than 40% of their ads, according to advertising tracking firm AdImpact.
Abortion is so key to the political landscape that Del. Rodney Willett, a Democrat, ran ads on the topic against his Republican opponent, Riley Shaia, even though she doesn't support new restrictions.
Shaia, a first-time candidate, wouldn't say how she would vote if new restrictions came up for a vote in the legislature.
Willett says regardless of Shaia's personal stance on abortion rights, a GOP majority would ensure abortion restrictions.
"There will never be a vote to protect abortion access from the Republican party. There'll be many votes to take it away," he said at a canvassing event in late October.
Dunnavant's opponent, Democratic Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, said most Virginians want "the Roe v. Wade framework" and would not support new limits.
"How often do you see someone's rights just taken away from them, like the carpet pulled out from under your feet?" he told NPR while knocking doors in apartment complexes in his suburban district. "Republicans are promising that here in Virginia."
Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, says Democratic candidates have been keeping their campaign message simple.
"I think the Virginia Democrats have been very, very disciplined about not getting into the weeds," she told NPR. "Because for voters, there's a fundamental freedom and right at stake here."
She says Republicans' 15-week proposed ban can be confusing.
"Fifteen-week bans, six-week bans, people get very confused about that — people aren't very good at math or biology, as it turns out," Lake said. "People are like, 'I don't want to hear about all of this gobbledygook. I want to hear — do you support people's fundamental freedom to make these health care decisions for themselves?'"
In the final days of voting, Democrats enlisted the help of President Biden to drive the message home.
"Folks, in Virginia, the stakes have never been higher," Biden said in a fundraising email sent by the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee. "Governor Glenn Youngkin and extreme Republicans have made it clear that they're trying to take our country back on issues like choice."
Will Republicans' new message resonate?
In many ways, Peyton Nichols checks all the boxes of the voter Republicans are trying to target. She's a young woman who votes in a swing area that traditionally tilts blue, but is personally against abortion.
"I feel like I'm a little bit of an outsider on that and everything," Nichols told NPR on her way to cast an early vote.
Nichols said the GOP messaging, which she laughingly referred to as "the ban is not a ban," didn't convince her.
"I just think that it's really important that women can make the choices," she said.
Other voters who oppose abortion rights are contending with the fact that their options are sometimes limited to a Republican who supports less stringent restrictions than the total bans they want to see put in place.
"I am a Republican, but I'm also a Christian," said Pete Johnson, a voter in Henrico. "So it's tough to put any kind of week [limit] on abortion. I'd rather we don't have it at all."
Lake, the Democratic pollster, said the crucial constituencies in key battleground districts are the ones most likely to be mobilized by the Supreme Court's decision.
"The very people that are the swing in these state legislative races are the very people who were most shocked by the overturning of Roe v. Wade," she said, pointing to young, independent and suburban women.
What the Virginia elections mean for 2024
In Ohio, voters are casting ballots directly on abortion rights, which provides political analysts and campaigners more straightforward information about the issue and its importance to voters.
The Virginia legislative elections make unpacking the success of Republicans' new messaging strategy more complicated.
"One thing that's really difficult to untangle is this is not a referendum on Tuesday," said Brian Robinson, a Republican public affairs consultant in Georgia. "This is an election amongst candidates who stand for a variety of policies."
He said he'd look for where abortion was the deciding issue in Virginia, versus other issues like crime or the economy.
"I would need some convincing to see that this is top of mind for voters, and it is what they are going to decide their vote on. If there's a case like that in Virginia, it could be applicable to Georgia and to other swing states."
Virginia, with its racial and economic diversity, has a reputation as being a sort of temperature check on national politics. Voters and politicos are paying attention to the Old Dominion knowing it could be a preview for what's to come in the 2024 elections.
But for Virginians, the stakes are more immediate. At a Youngkin rally, the head of the state Republican Party, Rich Anderson, laid out what he thinks would soon happen with a Republican majority.
"Bottom line is, I don't think you, me or any citizen will see a bait and switch if there are Republican majorities in both the House and Senate," he said. "[Youngkin] said 15 weeks. I think he'd take it to the bank."
How effective Youngkin's messaging and mobilization of state Republicans is could also have personal implications. A victory of Virginia Republicans on Tuesday could elevate his stature among the national GOP, adding to chatter that he could launch a 2024 presidential bid.
Youngkin has kept the focus on Virginia.
"To even have my name tossed around in this is incredibly humbling," he told ABC.
Jahd Khalil covers politics for VPM.
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