Two clashing forces shape battle for Virginia — and what to expect in 2024

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So much has stayed the same, politically, since Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won Virginia two years ago — most American voters say the nation is headed in the wrong direction, President remains unpopular and former President continues to loom over the political landscape.

But so much has changed, too. Most dramatically, the U.S. Supreme Court overturning the Roe v. Wade decision on abortion, which resulted in a more energized Democratic electorate that helped the party in the 2022 midterms and in special elections across the country this year.

And next week’s state legislative races in Virginia, where control of the Legislature is up for grabs (and with it, Youngkin’s national ambitions), could hinge on which political force is greater.

What has stayed the same since 2021, which benefits Republicans?



Or what has changed from two years ago, which helps Democrats?

The answer could very well provide an early test of how these countervailing forces are shaping the 2024 presidential election.

“A lot of 2021 feels present in 2023,” said veteran Virginia GOP strategist Tucker Martin about the political environment in the state.

“The one major change is that there is a big motivator for Democrats,” Martin added, referring to the issue of abortion.

The national NBC News poll helps explain what has changed — and what hasn’t — since the GOP’s victory in Virginia two years ago.

In October 2021, the poll found 71% of all adults saying the country is headed in the wrong direction; that share was 73% among registered voters in this September’s NBC News poll.

The 2021 poll showed Biden’s approval rating at 45% among registered voters (and 42% among all adults); it’s now at 41%.

And two years ago, just 40% of Americans approved of Biden’s handling of the economy; that percentage now is at 37%.

But here’s what has changed, per the national NBC News poll: Democrats’ voting enthusiasm and advantage on the issue of abortion have both increased since the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision overturning Roe v. Wade.

“I think Dobbs is a huge difference-maker,” said Virginia-based Democratic political consultant Jared Leopold, referring to the decision overturning the constitutional right to an abortion. “People are really paying attention to state legislatures and governors in a new way.”

Fellow Democratic political strategist Jesse Ferguson, who also has longstanding ties to the state, added: “The biggest difference is that the warnings Democrats gave in 2021 about abortion have now become reality.”

And after the Dobbs decision, Democrats held onto control of the U.S. Senate in the 2022 midterms, barely lost control of the U.S. House and have overperformed in special elections and abortion-related ballot measures across the nation.

Biden and GOP abortion limits remain unpopular in Virginia

A pair of recent polls of Virginia show how the same national trends in the NBC News poll are also playing out in the state.

A survey from Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center shows Biden struggling in the state, with an approval rating at 41% among likely voters. By contrast, Youngkin’s approval stands at 55%.

Separately, a Washington Post-Schar poll finds Biden’s overall approval at 43% among registered voters, compared with Youngkin at 54%.

In 2019, Virginia Democrats used former President Donald Trump’s unpopularity and their fired-up base to rout Republicans in the state Legislature, says Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. The picture has shifted significantly since then.

“This year is different,” Rozell said. “You have a Democratic president who is underwater in public opinion polls and who has cast a deep shadow, particularly over his own party.”

Yet the state polling also shows that abortion is a vulnerability for Republicans.

A majority of likely voters in Virginia — 54% — say they oppose the 15-week abortion limit (with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother) that Youngkin has proposed, per the Wason Center poll. And the Washington Post-Schar survey finds Democrats holding a 17-point advantage on which party better handles abortion.

Not surprisingly, Democrats running in Virginia’s most competitive state legislative races have made abortion a cornerstone in their campaigns.

“The fact that Danny Diggs has vowed to pass a new ban on abortion isn’t just radical, it’s dangerous,” goes an ad by incumbent Democratic state Sen. Monty Mason, running in one of Virginia’s top legislative races.

Republicans have played defense on the issue, arguing that a 15-week limit on abortion isn’t a ban.

“Siobhan does not support an abortion ban,” a woman says in a TV ad for incumbent Republican state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, who’s running in another of Virginia’s most competitive races. “Fifteen weeks is reasonable. She has exceptions for rape, incest, life of the mother and fetal anomalies,” says another woman in the ad.

“Since the Dobbs decision last summer, the issue of abortion has been a political winner for Democrats,” said Amy Walter, publisher of the nonpartisan Cook Political Report with Amy Walter.

“But what’s unique about Virginia is the fact that Gov. Youngkin, as well as some other state legislative candidates, have decided to try and reframe the debate.”

Virginia battle is a jump ball

The polling in Virginia suggests a jump ball between Democrats and Republicans in their battle for legislative control in the state.

Currently, Democrats narrowly control the state Senate, while Republicans narrowly control the state’s General Assembly. Both chambers are up for grabs, and Republicans can give Youngkin the ability to push his legislative agenda through if they win both.

The recent Wason Center poll finds likely voters split on which party they want to control the Assembly, with 42% picking Democrats and 41% preferring Republicans to be charge. And the Washington Post-Schar poll has Democrats ahead by 2 points among likely voters, 47% to 45%.

In this close contest, Democrats say they’re concerned about the millions of dollars Youngkin has raised for these contests, as the state GOP tries to win full control over Virginia’s government.

“We don’t have anyone, collectively, who matches the money Youngkin has been able to raise,” said Ferguson, the Democratic strategist. “If we come up short, that will be why.”

Republicans, meanwhile, believe the map to winning a majority in the state Senate remains difficult.

“[Republicans] have the funding, they have the candidates. The map, though, it is really tough,” said Martin, the GOP strategist.

What’s also at stake in these legislative elections — beyond political control, Youngkin’s national ambitions and the potency of the abortion — is a reality check on just how competitive the state is, especially after Democrats’ near dominance in Virginia over the past two decades.

“I think many people were premature in declaring Virginia a solid-blue state,” said Rozell of George Mason University.

“I think it’s a two-party competitive state,” he added.

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