MIAMI – Virginia Republicans say they’re perplexed by comments from the chair of the Republican National Committee accusing their losing candidates of dodging the issue of abortion.
“I watched all the ads in Virginia; the candidates on our side did not address it,” McDaniel said on a Wednesday taping of Ruthless, a conservative podcast after her party lost both houses of the state legislature. “We cannot cross-advertise and run only crime ads, and then the Democrats run abortion ads, and then we sit and pretend like that’s not being discussed.”
In fact, local Republicans had united their candidates around a message – they supported a 15-week abortion ban, Democrats supported no limits – this summer. They’d fallen short, while carrying every district that voted for Joe Biden in 2020 by less than 8 points. On Thursday, they distributed a memo about what had worked to win their closest races, just as McDaniel was criticizing them.
“Saying that we did not run enough ads on that issue is a remarkable revision of the last two months,” said Dean Goodson, chief of staff to outgoing House Speaker Todd Gilbert. “Maybe if we had gotten some help from the RNC, we could have run some more ads in the DC market.”
An RNC spokesperson said that McDaniel was referring to the overall spending on abortion messaging in the state. Democrats poured nearly $17 million on abortion-focused ads, warning that Gov. Glenn Youngkin would “ban” the practice if voters gave him GOP majorities in Richmond. Republicans spent one-tenth as much, according to a New York Times analysis.
Before the election, Youngkin and his strategists suggested that a win would show that Republicans could talk about an issue they evaded in 2022, after the Supreme Court’s conservative majority struck down Roe v. Wade. Voters began getting mail about the GOP’s abortion stance after the June primary; candidates in tough races, went on air early with ads clarifying where they stood.
“I don’t support an abortion ban. Period,” said Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, an ob/gyn, in an early ad.
Dunnavant lost, but significantly out-performed Donald Trump’s 2020 numbers in her Democratic-trending seat. Zack Roday, the campaigns director for Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC, said that a close election might have been a Democratic “massacre” had Republicans not acted early on the abortion issue, and built out an early voting program – two long-term RNC priorities.
But Virginia Republicans had sparred with the national party long before the polls closed. Youngkin’s fundraising helped the party build a cash advantage over Democrats for must of the campaign, which was reversed only after liberal donors and the DNC poured money into their races in September.
Last month, Virginia GOP chairman Rich Anderson met with the RNC and learned that it would not be putting more money into Virginia; it had locked in its 2023 funding months earlier, when state Republicans were out-raising Democrats and didn’t ask for help.
Republicans started the year with a commitment to win the argument on abortion or at least find a way to neutralize an issue that became central to the 2022 midterm elections. At their winter meeting in January, RNC members urged candidates to “reject a strategy of silence,” in a resolution full of polling data: “Many Republican stances regarding abortion garner at least 60 % support from the public and across the political spectrum.”
Virginia Republicans thought they could prove this, and Youngkin leaned in, calling the 15-week ban “common sense,” as strategists told reporters that a win could show the party how to navigate this issue.
Every frontline Republican pushed on abortion adopted Youngkin’s position. Democrats ran abortion-focused ads warning of a coming Republican “ban,” while GOP candidates, in mail and on TV, contrasted a 15-week ban with what they framed as Democratic extremism.
“Where the other side has been is to extend abortion all the way up through and including birth, paid for by taxpayer money,” Youngkin told CNN on Election Day.
As the results came in, Virginia Republicans saw a story to tell; their ticket had run even stronger then their 2022 congressional ticket, making some inroads with Democrats and mitigating the abortion challenge.
“The outcome, and resulting media narrative today, was decided by one tenth of one percent of roughly 2.3 million votes cast this year,” wrote David Rexrode, the chairman of Youngkin’s PAC, in its post-election memo. At a Wednesday press conference, Youngkin called abortion “a very difficult topic across Virginia and across the nation,” but noted how just a switch of a few thousand votes would have given them a majority.
His strategy really did trim their losses. Their Virginia candidates ran far stronger than Kentucky’s Daniel Cameron, who lost to Gov. Andy Beshear on Tuesday after never responding on-air to attacks on his support for an abortion ban. (As attorney general, Cameron had defended the state’s total ban, and only suggested that he might support exceptions in September.)
But there was no race this week where the right’s abortion messaging prevailed. McDaniel, who faces pressure from conservative activists whenever the party loses, suggested that nobody had really heeded her advice. “I sent messages to the candidates in these races and said please, please, please, refute the lie,” she told her podcast interviewers on Wednesday. The reality was a little grimmer: Republicans who executed the party’s post-Dobbs messaging strategy, hoping that voters would prefer that to Democrats’ hyper-focused abortion campaigns, moved the ball and lost anyway.
The View From Democrats
Heather Williams, the Interim President of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, said that Republicans were delusionally spinning, after telling the world that they could talk about abortion and win.
“Governor Youngkin lost, plain and simple, and the results show that his stance to ban abortion access was the primary factor why,” said Williams. “Tuesday night was a complete disaster for him. Youngkin spent millions while boasting time and time again that his team was going to flip both legislative chambers.”