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Semafor LogoDavid Weigel
David Weigel
politics

The Virginia election that could make or break Glenn Youngkin

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Glenn Youngkin and Kevin Adams.
David Weigel

VIRGINIA BEACH – Republicans are fighting to hold on to a state senate seat in today’s special election after a short and pricey campaign that pitted Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s political operation against Democrats who want to make him irrelevant.

“We're at that moment where either that rocket is going to hit its afterburners, or it might fizzle out,” Youngkin told more than a hundred voters at a Saturday rally for the GOP nominee. “Kevin Adams is going to lock arms right with us and help us get this done.”

The highly competitive race for Virginia’s 7th state senate district won’t change the balance of power in Richmond. A Republican win would leave the party one vote short of controlling the chamber ahead of November’s off-year election. A victory for Virginia Beach city councilman Aaron Rouse, the Democratic nominee, would give his party a 22-18 majority.

But both parties see the race as a test for Youngkin, and for their broader off-year election strategy. The GOP campaign has centered the popular governor and his tax-cut plans, and warned that Rouse would be soft on crime. Democrats and their allies have focused on abortion, warning that Republicans could pass a 15-week ban on the procedure if Democrats don’t have the votes to block it.

If Republicans capture both houses of the General Assembly in November, Youngkin can spend 2024 and 2025 passing conservative bills. If not, Democrats are eager to stymie the rest of his agenda.

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“My birthday is going to be the 50th anniversary of when Roe v. Wade was decided,” State Senate President L. Louise Lucas told Rouse and other Democrats who were heading out to knock doors on Saturday. “You think I’m going to let them turn it back? Hell fuckin’ no!”

Rouse, a 39-year old former NFL star, raised more than $1.1 million to campaign for the open seat, which Republican Rep. Jen Kiggans narrowly won in 2019 and vacated to take her place in Congress. Adams, a 61-year old Navy veteran, has raised nearly as much money for his first-ever race. Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC has given a boost to Adams, while Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, though its own PAC, has bought ads and dispatched volunteers to knock Democrats’ doors.

“It’s an opportunity to pick up a seat and safeguard abortion rights in the commonwealth,” said Jamie Lockhart, the executive director of PPAV, who said she’d personally knocked on 184 doors over the weekend. “We were warning folks that the governor would be hostile to abortion rights. He excelled, during the campaign, in not answering questions about it.”

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The race to replace newly sworn-in Rep. Jen Kiggans lasted only 50 days, and both major parties treated it like a speedrun of last year’s midterms.

If the GOP’s campaign tactics work here, it’s a good sign for Youngkin everywhere. The Hampton Roads region, which includes Virginia Beach, hasn’t seen the kind of crime increase that powered backlashes to Democrats in New York last year. The attorney general’s probes of public education in northern Virginia, a serious focus for conservatives, get little coverage in the region.

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In the midterms, Kiggans beat ex-Rep. Elaine Luria narrowly, but not in the precincts that make up the new senate seat. Luria won them by around 4 points, and the abortion issue helped close the gap.

“This is a totally winnable district,” Luria said in an interview, days after wrapping up her term and her service on the Jan. 6 select committee.

She and other Democrats worry that a loss could give Republicans a window to pass abortion legislation even without technically flipping the chamber, because state Sen. Joe Morrissey, an anti-abortion Catholic with a colorful biography, might vote with the GOP on the issue. At the same time, the Republican speaker of the House of Delegates has said he doubts that “anything of substance” on abortion could pass this year.

Lucas and other Democrats call the Virginia Beach seat a potential “buffer,” helping them block Youngkin’s agenda until the November election. Republicans agree with that assessment, and portray Lucas’s Democrats as obstructionists in a district that voted Republican up and down the ballot when Youngkin won.

“We're one vote away from an abortion ban in our Commonwealth,” Rouse said in an interview. “That makes this race even more important.”

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Democrats pounced at every chance to elevate the abortion issue, from Morrissey’s own remarks, to Youngkin’s December budget update that earmarked money toward setting up a potential 15-week ban on abortion, which Adams also supports. (Virginia law currently bans the practice after 26 weeks and six days of pregnancy.)

During the 2021 campaign, a progressive undercover reporter pushed Youngkin on how he could “take it to the abortionists” if he won. Democrats waved around tape of his answer — he said he’d “start going on offense” with majorities, but the issue “won’t win my independent voters” as a campaign issue — to warn that the ex-Carlyle Group CEO had a hidden agenda.

Youngkin and the GOP ticket swept the election after that, though the state senate wasn’t on the ballot. Now, Democrats are reviving the episode with the legislature back in play.

In the special election, Republicans haven’t touched on abortion at all. Youngkin’s PAC, which has raised nearly $5 million since the governor took office last year, has treated this race as the first stage of the November election. On TV, commercials for Adams show the two men together, ready to work on policies like the end of taxes on all veterans’ benefits.

Their case against Rouse starts with remarks that he made at a rally after the murder of George Floyd. “America may have freed the slave, but not the Black American,” Rouse said at a June 2020 event at a church outside the district, describing the fugitive slave laws once enforced in Virginia. “The similarities between the slave patrols and modern American policing are too salient to dismiss or ignore.”

Republicans used the quotes to portray Rouse as anti-police. At Saturday’s rally near an early voting center, where Adams spoke for just 90 seconds, Youngkin and two of his GOP predecessors in Richmond urged their base to prevent a cop-hater from joining the state senate.

“His opponent does not back the blue,” said Youngkin.

“His opponent made these derogatory remarks insulting police officers as being akin to slave traders,” said former Gov. George Allen.

“He’s going to defeat the philosophy of the criminal apologists, who’ve put forth these very liberal laws that have led to decreasing arrests,” said former Gov. Bob McDonnell.

The ex-governor’s own 2014 conviction on corruption charges was overturned two years later by the Supreme Court, but everybody knew what he was talking about: The fear that criminal justice reform would lead to higher crime.

Title iconNotable

The Washington Post’s take on the election focuses on the abortion question, and how much money’s come in to fight it out.

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