Updated Sep 15, 2023, 1:00pm EDT
politicsNorth America

Virginia’s high-stakes elections are pitting abortion versus ‘parent rights’


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The Scene

LEESBURG, Va. – On Tuesday, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s “Parents Matter” tour came to the place where it all started.

The Loudoun County School Board, the scene of protests two summers ago over its handling of a rape case, met ten minutes down the road. Activists wearing “RECALL THE SCHOOL BOARD” were part of the sizable mid-day crowd. Scott Smith, the victim’s father who’d been convicted of disorderly conduct at the school board meeting, had just been pardoned by Youngkin — and he was in the room, too.

“Some of us went to sleep, and the school board started to do things that are inconsistent with the basic belief of parents,” said Youngkin, shirtsleeves rolled up, pacing in front of GOP state senate candidate Juan Pablo Segura, who sued the school board shortly after launching his campaign. “Kids belong to parents, not to the state.”

Virginia’s Nov. 7 elections, known colloquially as the commonwealth’s “off-off-off year” races, will determine whether Youngkin has a majority that can pass conservative bills. His Spirit of Virginia PAC has raised more than $16 million to make that happen; he’s recruited and campaigned with candidates to demolish what Democrats call the “blue wall,” a four-seat Senate majority that’s stymied him.

Republicans are running on what worked in 2021, much of it under the “parental rights” umbrella, when the Loudoun controversy and a cash-flush campaign delivered the biggest GOP victory of the Biden era.


But Democrats say that the Dobbs decision changed everything. In 2022, they defended two of the three House seats that Youngkin’s GOP was targeting thanks to their resilience in the suburbs; in January, they flipped a state senate seat in Virginia Beach after warning that Youngkin could pass a 15-week abortion limit if the “blue wall” fell. Zooming out to the national landscape, Republicans have not been able to replicate Youngkin’s formula in battleground races in the midterms or subsequent elections either.

“I’ve knocked thousands of doors, and the number one issue I hear about is abortion,” said Russet Perry, the Democratic nominee against Segura in the 37th district. “There’s a lot of concern about the agenda Youngkin would actually push forward, to appeal to all of those Trump voters, so he can run for president.”

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David’s view

From a pure operations and resource perspective, Republicans may have the edge. For the first time in 12 years, Republicans are running an off-off-off year campaign from the governor’s office — a sizable organizing and fundraising advantage. And both parties give Youngkin credit for focusing on these races early, helping nudge candidates with personal resources (Segura, a GOP donor who moved here during the pandemic, and got $500,000 from Youngkin’s PAC) or compelling biographies (Danny Diggs, a 24-year sheriff who retired then ran for senate).

“These are not your normal state senate candidates,” said Youngkin strategist Zack Roday. In every seat where the 2021 gubernatorial race was decided by 5 points or less, the party had the recruit it wanted, often after Youngkin helped them through the primary; in 9 of the 15 closest seats, for house and senate, the GOP candidate had raised more money than the Democrat.

And in one of the seats where the Democrat has raised more money, the candidate, Susanna Gibson, was revealed to have taken tips for online sex with her husband, a story that briefly knocked the party off-message. (In Leesburg, asked about that story, Youngkin demurred and said he was focused on electing Republicans.)


“I am always surprised, and a little bit befuddled, about how national donors don’t understand that we have elections every year,” said Virginia Democratic Party chair Susan Swecker. In 2019, when Gov. Ralph Northam spent the first half of the year engulfed in a racist yearbook photo scandal, the party needed anti-Trump energy and former Gov. Terry McAuliffe to bail it out.

But back-up has begun arriving before early voting kicks off next week. Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia started its ad buys on Friday, and its president, Jamie Lockhart, said that they’d been organizing for “the first post-Roe” legislative elections here since December.

“We now have an anti-abortion governor who has said that he would happily and gleefully sign any anti-abortion legislation that gets to his desk,” said Lockhart, referring to remarks Youngkin made to conservative activists last year — remarks almost every Democrat I talked to quoted, word for word. “In 2021, we knew that the Dobbs decision was coming, but we saw a believability gap; people weren’t aware that Roe v. Wade could be overturned.”

Republicans have three responses to this. One: They’re confident that Youngkin’s quest to bank early votes, embodied by his “Secure the Vote” bus tour, is going to fix one of the problems that sunk them in the Virginia Beach election.

“Having a strong partner and a leader in Governor Youngkin has been instrumental for our diverse batch of candidates,” said Dee Duncan, the president of the Republican State Leadership Committee.


Two: The 15-week abortion limit tests better than Democrats want to admit, and their candidates have the resources to clarify this when their challengers warn about a total “abortion ban.” In Leesburg, asked about passing a 15-week bill, Youngkin talked about “a place where we can come together as Virginians,” emphasized that he wanted “exceptions for rape and incest,” and accused Democrats of wanting to legalize abortion up to the moment of birth.

Democrats think that’s a non-starter; Republicans accused them of favoring full-bore “infanticide” in 2019, after Del. Kathy Tran stumbled during a floor discussion of emergency late-term abortions, and the party had its best off-off-year election in a generation. Their candidates also have the advantage of defending the status quo, backing the state’s current 26-week, six-day limit.

“I think the Dobbs decision crystallized that our rights can be taken away from us,” Tran said in a short interview.

Three: Republicans are running on plenty of other issues. In the close races, their candidates have dusted off the messaging that worked for them in 2021, from insisting that Democrats want to “defund the police” to warning that they’ll trammel parents’ rights.

That year, McAuliffe handed them a gift, saying in a debate with Youngkin that he didn’t “think parents should be telling teachers what to teach.” This year, they’ve got a list of child safety bills that the “blue wall” halted — in Leesburg, Youngkin pointed to an online anti-porn bill that “progressive Democrats” killed — and some less-explosive comments from Democrats who see “parental rights” push as a trojan horse issue.

Democrats insist that the playbook won’t work now — not after Dobbs. At a crowded Loudoun County canvass launch last weekend, joined by Democratic school board candidates, Perry noted that her kids go to Loudoun County public schools; voters wanted to “make sure that our teachers are supported and our kids are safe” more than they wanted to keep fighting about 2021. (Youngkin carried the senate district by 1 point after Donald Trump lost it by 6.)

And they weren’t quite sure how incumbent Republicans would run against a police “defunding” that never happened. In one of Segura’s TV ads, an actor playing Perry (a former CIA officer and county prosecutor) is asked about crime going “up on your watch.” Seconds later, Segura is seen walking alongside Loudoun County Sheriff Mike Chapman, who’s seeking re-election in what he calls “one of the safest places in the United States to live and work.”

“They’re living in the past,” said Swecker, “and we’re running in the present.”

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The View From Virginia's Senators

Virginia’s two Democratic U.S. Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, have been trying to bring national attention to the fall’s races by warning that, along with clearing the way for Youngkin’s agenda, a win for Republicans could make other contests more competitive in the state during 2024.

Warner pointed to Wisconsin, where national donors threw resources into a pivotal state supreme court election, as a model the party should follow. “So much is at stake in terms of controlling the legislature and I just don’t see that same national energy, candidly, from the White House,” said Warner. The Democratic National Committee gave $1.2 million to Virginia Democrats last week.

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  • In the Dispatch, David M. Drucker and Audrey Fahlberg write about Youngkin “playing the hits” on education and “focusing on an issue that carried him to an unlikely victory two years ago.”
  • In the New York Times, Trip Gabriel sees other Republicans who’ve lost suburban races on the abortion issue wondering if Youngkin can provide a “road map.”
  • And in Politico, Jack Shafer suggests that the Gibson story will bore voters who’ve come to accept “previously taboo behaviors.”