Virginia’s high-stakes elections are pitting abortion versus ‘parents’ rights’
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.”
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.”
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.
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.”
Tennessee. Nashville held runoff elections on Thursday, with Metro Council member Freddie O’Connell winning the race for mayor by a landslide. He’d been the heavy favorite in a race with Alice Rolli, a GOP strategist who warned that O’Connell – best known for opposing a taxpayer funding deal for a new football stadium – would be soft on crime. Down the ballot, Olivia Hill won a seat on the council, becoming the first transgender person ever to hold office in Tennessee.
Wisconsin. Republicans in Madison voted to fire state elections chief Meagan Wolfe, then voted to advance redistricting reform that would allow a panel to draw maps that would have to be approved by legislators, while Assembly Speaker Robin Vos formed a panel to study whether the state supreme court’s new liberal justice should be impeached. All of this, said Democrats, was about manipulating the next election. “Secret processes and sudden snap votes on bills that lock in Republican control are landing like a lead balloon,” state Democratic Party chair Ben Wikler told reporters on Thursday. (Wolfe will stay on; the court’s old conservative majority had ruled that appointees could stay in office until replacements were selected, a decision that temporarily benefited appointees of ex-Gov. Scott Walker.)
Friends of Russet Perry, “For the Commonwealth.”Perry is a former CIA officer and county prosecutor, and this spot focuses on both jobs — shots of criminals convicted in the county and a reference to how she protected America. “Nothing matters more than keeping our families safe,” Perry says, before a quick pivot to the Democrats’ dominant message that their opponents want to “ban abortion in Virginia.”
Friends of Siobhan Dunnavant, “Not a Ban.” The most at-risk GOP senator, running in a seat that rejected Youngkin by 7 percentage points, leads with these words: “I don’t support an abortion ban.” Women do all the talking in this ad, calling Dunnavant’s support for the 15-week limit “reasonable” and spelling out the exceptions that the senator supports.
Cole for Virginia, “Raised Right.” Democrats ran statewide government for two years, passing a progressive agenda that’s still the focus of their paid messaging. Cole, running for a third term, talks about expanding Medicaid and lowering drug prices — all before warning that Republicans want to ban abortion. “I’m not going to let that happen,” he says, after a quick shot of him praying with his wife.
Pollsters haven’t really started asking what voters think of a Biden impeachment, but there’s more skepticism of the allegations against him than there was of the ones that led to Donald Trump’s first Senate trial. As Democrats ramped up toward their 2019 impeachment vote, Quinnipiac found that 59% of voters agreed that Trump was abusing his office. Most independents agreed. Just 31% of independents now think that Biden was involved in illegal activity around his son Hunter’s lobbying, and 68% of Republicans.
It’s been three weeks since the Trump-free GOP debate, and we’ve seen two trends: slight improvement for Nikki Haley in early primary states, and a slight decline in support for Donald Trump. None of it has threatened Trump’s lead. Three-quarters of Trump supporters say they will “definitely” stay with him, while two out of three Republicans supporting other candidates say they could switch. Fourteen percent of Republicans say that “the Justice Department being used for political purposes” is the most important issue in the election, twice as many as say “abortion” is. Both Haley and Scott have held multiple rallies in the state, including Haley’s largest-ever event, after the debate. But their support isn’t as sticky as Trump’s.
Massachusetts Democrats won back the corner office in 2022, and Gov. Maura Healy led their ticket with a 29-point landslide. Since then, red state governors have shipped thousands of migrants from Central America to her state, Healy’s declared an emergency, and two interlocking issues have surged as concerns for voters — immigration and housing. The Texas-led strategy of shipping migrants to blue states has had an explosive political impact, and here, it’s tested support for the state’s mandatory-shelter law as residents grow more worried about home prices.
White House. The GOP field is campaigning for evangelical votes this weekend across two time zones. In D.C., the Family Research Council’s weekend Pray Vote Stand Summit will bring in Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Mike Pence, and Vivek Ramaswamy; on Saturday, all of them but Trump will head to Des Moines for the Faith & Freedom Coalition’s fall banquet. They’ll be joined by Nikki Haley, Asa Hutchinson, and three of the Republicans who didn’t make the cut for last month’s debate.
Meanwhile, in D.C. on Thursday, the DNC’s rules and bylaws committee voted to give New Hampshire Democrats more time to bring their primary in line with the party calendar — which isn’t likely, as the state constitution requires it to vote first, not after a contest in South Carolina.
The race to succeed California Sen. Dianne Feinstein was crowded before Lexi Reese got in. Rep. Adam Schiff and Rep. Katie Porter, two of the Democratic Party’s strongest fundraisers, had been running for months; so had Rep. Barbara Lee, an icon on the party’s left for her lonely vote against the war in Afghanistan.
But in June, Reese introduced herself to voters as a fresh face with no unseemly political experience — a Bay Area Democrat who’d worked at Google, a venture fund, and a startup. She talked with Americana on Wednesday, as AI executives met with senators in D.C. and as she issued a term limit challenge (two terms for senators, six for members of the House) to Schiff, Porter, and Lee. They haven’t responded.
Americana: California has had term limits for quite a while. What makes you feel like this would fix problems in Washington?
Lexi Reese: Congress has not gotten ahead of the challenges that we have faced, some that have now become existential, whether that’s climate, economic inequality, tech, social media, or now AI. One of the big reasons that I see is we don’t have a representative Congress — not by race, not by gender, not by economic background, not by skill set. We haven’t had the energy and the perspective and the hunger to solve these issues, because we have people staying in their seats for too long.
Americana: Has that happened in Sacramento? The critique you usually hear is that legislators cycle out, but lobbyists don’t have term limits.
Lexi Reese: I think we have more people running and more representative folks running. But if you don’t couple this with lower costs to enter politics, you will still see special interests having an outsized role in the discussion and the debate. Those two things go hand in hand.
Americana: What sort of campaign finance reform would fix that? The Supreme Court would strike down a lot of ideas, but there are states where people aren’t permitted to raise money during session.
Lexi Reese: I think that there should be a window of time that you are campaigning, when all the candidates are making their case to their constituents — and that is the time that you are fundraising. There should be a limit to how much you can fundraise. I don’t know what that limit should be; I haven’t gotten that far.
But let’s just say it’s lower than the $75 million that, potentially, the leading candidates for this race will raise. That’s out of reach for most people, and out of whack for everyone. We should also make it tax deductible to make low dollar contributions, so that more people can participate in chipping in to the candidates that they believe in. And we should have a National Service Day, on election day, where everybody votes, and everybody serves their community in some way. We also need Supreme Court term limits — we need 18-year terms, at most.
Americana: Do you favor getting rid of the Senate filibuster to do this?
Lexi Reese: Yes. It’s ridiculous.
Americana: I want to turn to AI. Do you support the demands that the WGA and SAG-AFTRA are making right now, preventing studios from using AI to replace background actors or writers?
Lexi Reese: Yes. I think our leaders in Washington were totally blindsided when the internet took our economy by storm, decades ago. They had no plan to ensure middle class families and small businesses benefited. SAG-AFTRA is asking for really reasonable things: We want to get paid commensurate with the value that we bring, and if you’re using our image or our content, we need to be paid for that.
AI has the power to do a lot. It could take the Voldemort, soul-sucking aspects of jobs away, and free people up to do more jobs of imagination and creativity. Or it could cause massive job loss. People are working harder than ever before, but 70% of people feel the system is rigged against them. Imagine when AI comes in, takes a bunch of jobs away, and we’re in a country that has free access to guns. That is a deeply scary world. And no one in the Senate has a technology background.
Americana: How would you regulate AI?Lexi Reese: There are some things you could do tomorrow, and there are some that I think we still need to wrestle with. Obviously, AI-generated content should have a label letting viewers know it’s AI generated, much like maturity ratings in the movie industry. Companies should also have to get the consent of creators to feed their algorithm. The European Union made a similar move with their opt out approach, but I think we could go further, with an opt in approach, to ensure that creators are compensated for their hard work while preserving a way for AI companies to get content. They do need to improve algorithms.
I think we need to introduce a human capital tax credit that rewards and incentivizes businesses that pay a living wage, that train their workers, that provide health care and childcare. You would subsidize that with a take or pay system — businesses that don’t do that have to pay into that pool. We need to accurately measure job loss. We know the rate at which driverless cars are coming on the road, and we know the number of truck drivers. We could work across sectors to say, planetary stability is imperative and we don’t get to do anything else without that.
Americana: Elizabeth Warren, who’d be your colleague if you win, has called for an investigation into Elon Musk, over him blocking Ukraine from Starlink when it was trying to attack Russian warships. Would you support that?
Lexi Reese: Yes. I think leaders in every sector need to be held accountable. Are they generating positive outcomes for people and the planet? Musk is notably not doing that, and I think we need to investigate all leaders who are actively creating danger for people. Some people have this neo-conservative, libertarian mantra, saying they only have a fiduciary duty — and Musk is one of them. There is no such thing as a rich, unlivable world. When someone is actively creating harm, they need to be investigated, and if found guilty of that harm held accountable.