A crucial new phase in the political struggle over abortion rights is unfolding in suburban neighborhoods across Virginia.
An array of closely divided suburban and exurban districts around the state will decide which party controls the Virginia state legislature after next month’s election, and whether Republicans here succeed in an ambitious attempt to reframe the politics of abortion rights that could reverberate across the nation.
After the Supreme Court overturned the nationwide right to abortion in 2022, the issue played a central role in blunting the widely anticipated Republican red wave in last November’s midterm elections. Republican governors and legislators who passed abortion restrictions in GOP-leaning states such as Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Iowa did not face any meaningful backlash from voters, as I’ve written. But plans to retrench abortion rights did prove a huge hurdle last year for Republican candidates who lost gubernatorial and Senate races in Democratic-leaning and swing states such as Colorado, Washington, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Arizona.
Now Virginia Republicans, led by Governor Glenn Youngkin, are attempting to formulate a position that they believe will prove more palatable to voters outside the red heartland. In the current legislative session, Youngkin and the Republicans, who hold a narrow majority in the state House of Delegates, attempted to pass a 15-week limit on legal abortion, with exceptions thereafter for rape, incest, and threats to the life of the mother. But they were blocked by Democrats, who hold a slim majority in the state Senate.
With every seat in both chambers on the ballot in November, Youngkin and the Republicans have made clear that if they win unified control of the legislature, they will move to impose that 15-week limit. Currently, abortion in Virginia is legal through the second trimester of pregnancy, which is about 26 weeks; it is the only southern state that has not rolled back abortion rights since last year’s Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe v. Wade.
Virginia Republicans maintain that the 15-week limit, with exceptions, represents a “consensus” position that most voters will accept, even in a state that has steadily trended toward Democrats in federal races over the past two decades. (President Joe Biden carried the state over Donald Trump by about 450,000 votes.) “When you talk about 15 weeks with exceptions, it is seen as very reasonable,” Zack Roday, the director of the Republican coordinated campaign effort, told me.
If Youngkin and the GOP win control of both legislative chambers next month behind that message, other Republicans outside the core red states are virtually certain to adopt their approach to abortion. Success for the Virginia GOP could also encourage the national Republican Party to coalesce behind a 15-week federal ban with exceptions.
“Candidates across this country should take note of how Republicans in Virginia are leading on the issue of life by going on offense and exposing the left’s radical abortion agenda,” Kelsey Pritchard, the director of state public affairs at the anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, told me in an email.
But if Republicans fail to win unified control in Virginia, it could signal that almost any proposal to retrench abortion rights faces intractable resistance in states beyond the red heartland. “I think what Youngkin is trying to sell is going to be rejected by voters,” Ryan Stitzlein, the vice president of political and government relations at the advocacy group Reproductive Freedom for All, told me. “There is no such thing as a ‘consensus’ ban. It’s a nonsensical phrase. The fact of the matter is, Virginians do not want an abortion ban.”
These dynamics were all on display when the Democratic legislative candidates Joel Griffin and Joshua Cole spent one morning last weekend canvassing for votes. Griffin is the Democratic nominee for the Virginia state Senate and Cole is the nominee for the state House of Delegates, in overlapping districts centered on Fredericksburg, a small, picturesque city about an hour south of Washington, D.C. They devoted a few hours to knocking on doors together in the Clearview Heights neighborhood, just outside the city, walking up long driveways and chatting with homeowners out working in their yards.
Their message focused on one issue above all: preserving legal access to abortion. Earlier that morning, Griffin had summarized their case to about two dozen volunteers who’d gathered at a local campaign office to join the canvassing effort. “Make no mistake,” he told them. “Your rights are on the ballot.”
The districts where Griffin, a business owner and former Marine, and Cole, a pastor and former member of the state House of Delegates, are running have become highly contested political ground. Each district comfortably backed Biden in 2020 before flipping to support Youngkin in 2021 and then tilting back to favor Democratic U.S. Representative Abigail Spanberger in the 2022 congressional election.
The zigzagging voting pattern in these districts is typical of the seats that will decide control of the legislature. The University of Virginia’s Center for Politics calculates that all 10 of the 100 House seats, and all six of the 40 Senate districts, that are considered most competitive voted for Biden in 2020, but that nearly two-thirds of them switched to Youngkin a year later.
These districts are mostly in suburban and exurban areas, especially in Richmond and in Northern Virginia, near D.C., notes Kyle Kondik, the managing editor of the center’s political newsletter, Sabato’s Crystal Ball. In that way, they are typical of the mostly college-educated suburbs that have steadily trended blue in the Trump era.
Such places have continued to break sharply toward Democrats in other elections this year that revolved around abortion, particularly the Wisconsin State Supreme Court election won by the liberal candidate in a landslide this spring, and an Ohio ballot initiative carried comfortably by abortion-rights forces in August. In special state legislative elections around the country this year, Democrats have also consistently run ahead of Biden’s 2020 performance in the same districts.
“There’s this idea that Democrats are maybe focusing too much on abortion, but we’ve got a lot of data and a lot of information” from this year’s elections signaling that the issue remains powerful, Heather Williams, the interim president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, told me.
Virginia Republicans aren’t betting only on their reformulated abortion position in this campaign. They are also investing heavily in portraying Democrats as soft on crime, too prone to raise taxes, and hostile to “parents’ rights” in shaping their children’s education, the issue that Youngkin stressed most in his 2021 victory. When Tara Durant, Griffin’s Republican opponent, debated him last month, she also tried to link the Democrat to Biden’s policies on immigration and the “radical Green New Deal” while blaming the president for persistent inflation. “What we do not need are Biden Democrats in Virginia right now,” insisted Durant, who serves in the House of Delegates.
Griffin has raised other issues too. In the debate, he underscored his support for increasing public-education funding and his opposition to book-banning efforts by a school board in a rural part of the district. Democrats also warn that with unified control of the governorship and state legislature, Republicans will try to roll back the expansions of voting rights and gun-control laws that Democrats passed when they last controlled all three institutions, from 2019 to 2021. A television ad from state Democrats shows images of the January 6 insurrection while a narrator warns, “With one more vote in Richmond, MAGA Republicans can take away your rights, your freedoms, your security.”
Yet both sides recognize that abortion is most likely to tip the outcome next month. Each side can point to polling that offers encouragement for its abortion stance. A Washington Post/Schar School poll earlier this year found that a slim 49 to 46 percent plurality of Virginia voters said they would support a 15-week abortion limit with exceptions. But in that same survey, only 17 percent of state residents said they wanted abortion laws to become more restrictive.
In effect, Republicans believe the key phrase for voters in their proposal will be 15 weeks, whereas Democrats believe that most voters won’t hear anything except ban or limit. Some GOP candidates have even run ads explicitly declaring that they don’t support an abortion “ban,” because they would permit the procedure during those first 15 weeks of pregnancy. But Democrats remain confident that voters will view any tightening of current law as a threat.
“Part of what makes it so salient [for voters] is Republicans were so close to passing an abortion ban in the last legislative session and they came up just narrowly short,” Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist with experience in Virginia elections, told me. “It’s not a situation like New York in 2022, where people sided with us on abortion but didn’t see it as under threat. In Virginia, it’s clear that that threat exists.”
In many ways, the Virginia race will provide an unusually clear gauge of public attitudes about the parties’ competing abortion agendas. The result won’t be colored by gerrymanders that benefit either side: The candidates are running in new districts drawn by a court-appointed special master. And compared with 2021, the political environment in the state appears more level as well. Cole, who lost his state-House seat that year, told me that although voters tangibly “wanted something different and new” in 2021, “I would say we’re now at a plateau.”
The one big imbalance in the playing field is that Youngkin has raised unprecedented sums of money to support the GOP legislative candidates. The governor has leveraged the interest in him potentially entering the presidential race as a late alternative to Trump into enormous contributions to his state political action committee from an array of national GOP donors. That torrent of money is providing Republican candidates with a late tactical advantage, especially because Virginia Democrats are not receiving anything like the national liberal money that flowed into the Wisconsin judicial election this spring.
Beyond his financial help, Youngkin is also an asset for the GOP ticket because multiple polls show that a majority of Virginia voters approve of his job performance. Republicans are confident that under Youngkin, the party has established a lead over Democrats among state voters for handling the economy and crime, while largely neutralizing the traditional Democratic advantage on education. To GOP strategists, Democrats are emphasizing abortion rights so heavily because there is no other issue on which they can persuade voters. “That’s the only message the Democrats have,” Roday, the GOP strategist, said. “They really have run a campaign solely focused on one issue.”
Yet all of these factors only underscore the stakes for Youngkin, and Republicans nationwide, in the Virginia results. If they can’t sell enough Virginia voters on their 15-week abortion limit to win unified control of the legislature, even amid all their other advantages in these races, it would send an ominous signal to the party. A Youngkin failure to capture the legislature would raise serious questions about the GOP’s ability to overcome the majority support for abortion rights in the states most likely to decide the 2024 presidential race.
Next month’s elections will feature other contests around the country where abortion rights are playing a central role, including Democratic Governor Andy Beshear’s reelection campaign in Kentucky, a state-supreme-court election in Pennsylvania, and an Ohio ballot initiative to rescind the six-week abortion ban that Republicans passed in 2019. But none of those races may influence the parties’ future strategy on the issue more than the outcome in Virginia.