If successful, Youngkin’s reputation inside the party will probably rise, offering a model for the party’s presidential and Senate candidates who have been scrambling for a winning message on abortion after the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to the procedure last year. If he fails, festering strategic divisions among antiabortion activists and Republican political strategists are set to worsen.
Virginia’s Nov. 7 elections for all 140 seats in the General Assembly are the only major races in the country this year and could signal the national political mood heading into next year’s presidential and congressional contests. Youngkin is raising record amounts of money in a push to keep GOP control of the House of Delegates and flip the Democratic-controlled Senate; with consolidated power, he could enact a conservative agenda featuring not only abortion limits, but also permanent tax cuts, looser environmental standards and tighter criminal justice laws.
At the root of Youngkin’s abortion strategy is the idea that a 15-week limit on the procedure, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the pregnant person, can be sold to voters as a “reasonable” and “common sense” limit — and not a “ban” on the procedure. “Here’s the truth: There is no ban,” claims a $1.4 million ad blitz paid for by Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia group promoting the policy.
Democrats have embraced the challenge, flooding millions more dollars onto the airwaves in ads about abortion that describe the same policy as a “ban,” hoping to ride a sharp rise in voter enthusiasm for protecting abortion access since the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Roe v. Wade.
“I hope they keep it up,” Democratic Party of Virginia chairwoman Susan Swecker said of the Youngkin ad campaign. “We’re the only Southern state that doesn’t ban abortion and [protecting access] is something that resonates across the commonwealth in all social, economic and diverse communities.”
Post-Schar School poll: Abortion is key for Dems., women in Virginia election
The Youngkin strategy, which could burnish his national standing as a potential presidential contender if successful, has not been embraced by many of the GOP candidates running in his state. Abortion has been mentioned in 42 percent of the ads aired by Democratic House and Senate candidates in the state through Oct. 17, according to the media tracking firm AdImpact, compared with just 3 percent of Republican candidates.
Youngkin’s effort is providing “a road map for how to tackle abortion, not only at the state level, but the federal level as well,” Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser said.
Republican election strategists, including former president Donald Trump, have been warning that abortion will hurt the party next year unless it is handled differently than it was in 2022, when drastic restrictions on abortion access in red states caused a backlash and powered Democratic gains.
Democrats have regularly over-performed partisan expectations again this year in special elections around the country, winning by an average of 11 points more than the relative partisanship of their districts, according to an analysis of 30 races by FiveThirtyEight.com.
Zack Roday, a spokesman for Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC, said national Republicans were caught flat-footed by Democratic counterattacks on abortion last year. “There was no Republican response, none, and the results were tough in the ’22 midterms,” Roday said. “Republicans didn’t talk about where they were. They didn’t swat back the misstatements, the sometimes outright lies.”
Youngkin, he said, aims to counter that with his aggressive campaign on 15 weeks. It’s not a tactic, he added. “It’s just reality. It’s a very good counter [to Democratic arguments] that levels the conversation and allows the voter to make an informed choice.” Virginia’s House Republican caucus also has sponsored a six-figure ad buy that embraces the 15-week limit.
National Republicans are not the only ones watching; Democrats see the coming showdown in Virginia as a clear test of whether Republicans can navigate the politically perilous issue.
“What is fascinating about Virginia is that Youngkin is really going for broke on this strategy,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake, who closely tracks this issue. “Virginia is a test case of this. If it is going to work anywhere, it is Virginia.”
Youngkin hopes to build on his reputation as a Republican who can solve political Rubik’s cubes. He rose to national prominence in 2021 by defeating Democratic former governor Terry McAuliffe in this blue-trending state, demonstrating that it’s possible to woo both the MAGA base and suburban moderates.
His “Parents Matter” campaign theme, capitalizing on conservative grievances against school districts in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic shutdowns, became a common theme among other Republicans in races around the country. But Youngkin has struggled to bestow his Virginia magic on others. He traveled last year to 15 states campaigning for Republican gubernatorial candidates, and only five of them won — four of which were in solid-red states.
Youngkin’s political advisers say abortion is not the only issue where Virginia can lead the way for other Republicans. “We will see across a range of different tactics what works the best, and I’m sure it will be copied,” Roday said.
Among those tactics is Youngkin’s emphasis on early voting, through a bus tour and website he calls “Secure Your Vote.” Virginia Republican lawmakers have fought for years against the expansion of early voting, including in this year’s legislative session, when they attempted to shorten the 45-day early voting period established by Democrats two years ago.
But Youngkin said Republicans can’t afford to leave potential votes on the sidelines and has mounted a summer-long campaign to get his voters to take advantage. Early voting also allows the campaign to measure the effectiveness of his message on the 15-week abortion limit, monitoring key suburban districts to see if GOP voters are motivated to go to the polls.
So far this year, early voting is strongest in the handful of closely competitive House and Senate seats where both parties are spending most of their campaign money, according to analysis by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project. Democrats hope to keep at least one chamber to block Youngkin’s conservative agenda.
A guide to the 2023 Virginia general election: What to know before you vote
Recent polling shows the challenge Virginia Republicans face on abortion. It is not the top issue on voters’ minds; the economy, education and crime rate slightly higher, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll this month. But abortion is one of the most intense issues for those who care about it, the poll found, and three-quarters of Virginia voters believe current abortion laws are either about right or too strict. When asked about a 15-week ban, voters were split, with 46 percent in favor and 47 percent opposed. National polls have shown similar results.
“Democrats were terrified of 15 weeks because it initially did poll well and Americans are bad at math and they have no idea how long a pregnancy lasts,” Democratic pollster Lake said. But Democrats have two clear advantages, she said: Since 2022, elections have shown that voters react poorly to any effort to “ban” abortion, even at later stages of gestation, explaining why the word is frequently used in Democratic television spots.
Second, Democrats have been able to argue that the efforts to restrict abortion fit into a larger “extremist” argument about the drift of the Republican Party, which has been defined in recent years by intraparty discord in Congress, Trump and efforts to disrupt or delay the transfer of power after the 2020 election.
Democrats have won a number of contests by large margins in which the issue of abortion was central. An August ballot initiative in Ohio, which would have made it more difficult to inscribe abortion rights into the state constitution, failed by 14 points in a state where Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) had won statewide by six points less than a year earlier.
In Wisconsin, liberal candidate Janet Protasiewicz won the Wisconsin Supreme Court race by 11 points, outperforming all statewide Democrats’ 2022 margins.
And in Kentucky, Gov. Andy Beshear (D) has been leading polls after running three ads against his Republican opponent, Daniel Cameron, for his past support of abortion restrictions that did not include exceptions for rape and incest. In Pennsylvania, two Democratic-leaning groups, Planned Parenthood and Everytown for Gun Safety, have bought ads attacking Republican Supreme Court candidate Carolyn Carluccio for downplaying her past opposition to abortion.
The concern is playing out in the 2024 Republican senate races, as well. Republicans have divided on whether to insist that GOP candidates embrace the 15-week abortion law as a starting point, with some in the antiabortion community arguing that the position is a winner while others say it will only strengthen the Democratic case that the GOP wants to “ban” the procedure.
Kari Lake, who ran for governor of Arizona in 2022 as an abortion opponent, launched her senate campaign this year by stating that she “does not support a federal ban on abortion,” according to her campaign website.
David McCormick, who is running for a second time as a Republican for Senate in Pennsylvania, has emphasized his support for the three exceptions, after suggesting during a televised debate in 2022 that he only supported an exception for the life of a pregnant person. He has not yet weighed in on a 15-week federal limit.
Abortion such a hot issue in Va. elections, Dems are fighting each other
Virginia Democrats are hammering the topic of abortion in this year’s campaigns, using sinister language to suggest that despite what Youngkin says, Republicans — should they gain full control of the legislature — would seek a total ban on abortion and criminalize women and doctors involved in the procedure.
“Do you really trust anything Republicans say on this?” Swecker said, pointing out that Youngkin — who calls himself “pro-life” and has participated in antiabortion “March for Life” rallies — told a conservative group last year that he would “happily and gleefully” sign “any bill” to “protect life.” Democrats also keep a running list of several Republican legislative candidates who have been surreptitiously recorded saying they would support stricter bans on abortion.
Republicans running in suburban swing districts — the handful of races likely to decide control of the General Assembly — are treading extraordinarily carefully around abortion. State Sen. Siobhan S. Dunnavant (R-Henrico), an OB/GYN competing in a blue-leaning district in the Richmond suburbs, has run an ad in which she says, “I don’t support an abortion ban, period” — arguing that a 15-week limit is not a ban.
Post-Roe, Va. doctor-state senator stakes out nuanced abortion stance
In a nearby Henrico House of Delegates district, Republican candidate Riley Shaia has sent out a campaign mailer stating that she would “oppose any additional restrictions on abortion in Virginia.” Our United Voices, a conservative PAC, sent out a Riley mailer claiming that she supports Youngkin’s 15-week ban, but Shaia told the Richmond Times-Dispatch that she favors leaving the current law unchanged.
Republicans, in turn, are trying to paint Democrats as “extreme” and favoring abortion up to and beyond birth, a position Swecker dismissed as “crazy.”
Geoff Garin, another Democratic pollster, said he is confident that the party’s advantages from 2022 remain firmly in place. “Every field experiment on the politics of abortion since the Dobbs decision has shown that the power is almost lopsidedly on the side of reproductive rights supporters,” he said. “And everything I have seen indicates that voters don’t litigate this around particular details. This is a fundamental value over who you think ought to be making the decisions.”
“If the GOP can’t win the [Virginia] state Senate with all of Youngkin’s money, then their problem isn’t about messaging on abortion. Their problem is their stance on abortion,” said Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, who has worked on Virginia races this cycle. “Governor Youngkin can’t just say, ‘These are not the droids you’re looking for’ and expect voters to ignore what the GOP has said and tried to do on abortion. The force is not with him.”
Laura Vozzella contributed to this report.
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