The new epicenter of America’s fight over abortion rights is Henrico County, Virginia, where candidates in bellwether state elections this fall are staking out positions that could test how both parties will try to appeal to moderate voters in 2024.
“They don’t want abortion illegal,” GOP state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant said of Virginia voters last weekend, sipping coffee as a heavy downpour ruined her plans for knocking on doors in this Richmond suburb.
“They want a woman to have a reasonable amount of time to figure out what she needs to do,” she added, before explaining why she supports restricting access to abortion in the third trimester.
That’s not typically how Republican politicians broach the topic. But Dunnavant, an OB-GYN, is airing a 60-second TV ad in which she speaks directly to the camera about her abortion position – namely that it should be legal up to 15 weeks, with some exceptions.
Earlier in the day, before the skies had opened up, state Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg – Dunnavant’s Democratic opponent in this competitive state Senate district – told a backyard rally that his campaign had hoped to focus on lowering the cost of living and improving education. But Dunnavant and GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin, he said, had turned the election into something else.
“My opponent, the governor, launched these campaigns with a proposal to take away people’s rights,” VanValkenburg said, using language Democrats have often successfully deployed since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade last year.
While many GOP-led states have toughened abortion restrictions since the fall of Roe, Virginia – with its split legislature – is the only Southern state that hasn’t. And on post-Roe ballot initiatives across the country, voters have sided with the abortion rights position, even in traditionally red states.
This fall’s legislative races in Virginia will be the first major “candidate vs. candidate” contests to spotlight the abortion issue since last year’s midterms. Every seat in both the GOP-led state House and the Democratic-controlled state Senate is up for election.
“There’s not like a referendum question on the ballot, but it is on the ballot,” Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine said in an interview Saturday after the backyard rally, which was hosted by the mother of Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger, who represented the area for two terms prior to redistricting. (Spanberger’s 2018 victory in what had long been a GOP-dominated district highlighted the suburban area’s move away from Republicans under Donald Trump.)
Kaine and his Democratic colleague, Sen. Mark Warner, have been trying to convince donors who were engaged in other states’ abortion-related ballot measures to step into Virginia – which backed Joe Biden by 10 points in 2020 and then voted for Youngkin by 2 points the following year. At the senators’ urging, Biden recently directed the Democratic National Committee to send $1.2 million for party campaign operations in Virginia. But that’s dwarfed by the $12 million Youngkin’s political action committee raised in the six months from March to August this year.
The stakes in November are high – for Youngkin, whose political ambitions likely rest on whether his party can win full control of Virginia government, and for 2024 candidates trying to figure out how to talk about abortion.
The only medical doctor in the legislature
Dunnavant’s staff had warned her Saturday that a storm was on the way and her door-knocking plans might be in jeopardy.
But she was having trouble getting away from the Festival of India at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. Seemingly every third person wanted to greet Dunnavant, who was quick to give a hug or take a photo.
First elected to the Virginia Senate in 2015, Dunnavant is now seeking an open seat that’s more Democratic than her current district. But many voters still see her as the incumbent, and she argues that her personal and professional experiences – she’s currently the only medical doctor in the legislature – inform her position on abortion.
While most GOP candidates in Virginia this year have, publicly at least, coalesced around the Youngkin-endorsed 15-week limit – with exceptions for rape, incest and life of the mother – Dunnavant differs slightly. She wants those exceptions to include “severe fetal anomalies.” But she also believes that most exceptions, besides life of the mother, shouldn’t extend past the “realm of viability.”
Current Virginia law allows abortions through about 26 weeks. After that, three physicians must sign off on an abortion. In a Washington Post-Schar School poll released in early April, three-quarters of registered Virginia voters said the state’s abortion law – which the survey did not describe – should either remain as it is or be loosened. Voters were about evenly split, however, on the 15-week proposal with exceptions.
“I felt very personally a responsibility to step forward when Dobbs came through because it was now something that wasn’t a national discussion,” Dunnavant said, referring to the Supreme Court ruling that ended Roe v. Wade as she explained her focus on abortion in the legislature – and now her campaign.
After struggling to form an effective abortion message post-Dobbs, more national Republicans seem to be acknowledging the political peril of ignoring the topic.
Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel praised the presidential candidates for at least talking about abortion at last month’s first primary debate. And there’s increasing reflection about how to talk about it. One Nation – a GOP outside group allied with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell – recently conducted research that was shared with Republican senators suggesting candidates must be specific about what being “pro-life” means and should talk about their support for exceptions, according to a person familiar with the group’s polling.
“The ground has shifted and a new approach is required,” Liesl Hickey, a GOP strategist and Dunnavant’s ad maker, said in an email. “When attacked, candidates in toss up areas need to return fire and not let Democrats define the debate.”
The fear of what could come next
Tammy Campbell isn’t buying Dunnavant’s pitch. Like a lot of Virginians, the 53-year-old Glen Allen resident wants abortion to be legal, even if she thinks having the procedure at the very end of a pregnancy “would be like murder.”
“We fought so hard to get these rights, and now they’re trying to take them away from us,” the self-described “old school Democrat,” who’s backing VanValkenburg, told CNN.
It’s not Dunnavant’s 15-week position that turns Campbell off, although she thinks the restriction could be pushed back further into pregnancy. It’s the threat of what else a GOP-controlled legislature could do.
“My fear is that we will – because we’re a conservative state, as it is – we will revert to some of those states where these poor people were seeking (abortions) outside of their state,” Campbell said.
Fear drives a lot of this year’s messaging about abortion. The political debate is often less about the candidates’ stated positions than about the threat of what they could do in office.
Virginia House Democrats have run an ad highlighting nearby states’ stricter abortion laws and featuring a comment by a state House Republican candidate during the primaries that he would support a “100% ban” on abortion. “MAGA Republicans in Richmond want Virginia to be next,” the narrator in the Democratic ad says. Meanwhile, an ad from Virginia House Republicans says Democrats support “elective abortions up until birth” – alluding to a 2019 bill that would have eased some requirements – as an image of VanValkenburg appears on screen.
VanValkenburg said in an interview last week that he doesn’t want to change current Virginia law. “I don’t think we should be messing with it,” the history and government teacher said, adding, “I think we need to take the law as-is and codify it into the constitution.”
While national Democrats largely haven’t specified a time cutoff for abortion access, Virginia Democrats are running on the state’s 26-week status quo, even if they don’t always talk specifics.
“The Dobbs decision completely changed what Virginia voters are thinking about,” Mamie Locke, the chair of the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus, said in a phone interview last month. She pointed to the issue’s salience in a state Senate special election earlier this year, in which Democrats flipped a GOP-held seat.
Democratic media consultant Scott Kozar – who worked on that special election and a recent Ohio ballot measure and is now involved in multiple Virginia legislative races this fall, including VanValkenburg’s – thinks the focus on freedoms and rights is paying dividends for Democrats, especially in politically evolving areas like this part of Virginia, which was once represented by Eric Cantor, the former House majority leader, and his tea party vanquisher Dave Brat.
“They were the freedom folks; now they’re the control people,” he said of Republicans.
“College-educated men are now in play for us,” he added. “Not saying they’re going to vote for us, but they’re a persuadable audience now.”
What’s a ‘ban’?
At last weekend’s Democratic backyard rally, where Arnold Palmers flowed from Spanberger-branded beverage dispensers, nurse practitioner Susanna Gibson was also leaning into the same language about freedoms to make her pitch to voters.
Gibson, who said she’s running for one of the most competitive House districts in the state because of the Dobbs decision, told CNN she’s “terrified” of women losing rights in Virginia. (She used similar framing in her response to reports this week that she and her husband had performed sexual acts on a pornographic livestreaming website, accusing unnamed political opponents of trying to silence women.)
Gibson told CNN that her GOP opponent David Owen wanted to ban abortion, alluding to a Richmond Times-Dispatch story that published a video from a campaign event at which the retired homebuilder called himself “pro-life” and suggested that votes for “outlawing” the procedure didn’t exist in the legislature.
But in a brief interview at the Festival of India in Richmond last weekend, Owen said he supports “a woman’s right to choose” up until 15 weeks, with exceptions – a notable public usage of the language of “choice” by a Republican.
“So nobody knows what the makeup of the legislature is going to be, but whatever it is, I’m not going to vote for a ban. I’m at 15 weeks,” Owen said.
Dunnavant has made a similar distinction. “I don’t support an abortion ban. Period,” she says in an ad that features other women stating that Dunnavant doesn’t back a ban and casting assertions to the contrary as “political lies.”
VanValkenburg doesn’t see it that way.
“If something’s legal and then it becomes illegal, that’s a ban,” he said as the poolside crowd at Saturday’s rally nodded along.
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