Virginia Democrats are sounding the alarm over abortion rights in the commonwealth ahead of November’s general elections, seeking to tie the state’s Republican candidates to a new restrictive Texas law banning the procedure after six weeks of pregnancy.
Democratic gubernatorial nominee Terry McAuliffe hit his opponent Glenn Youngkin on the issue in a press call Thursday, calling the Republican the most “anti-choice candidate in the history of Virginia.”
“If Glenn Youngkin is elected and he gets the House, there is a good chance that Virginia could go the way of Texas and women will lose their rights here in the Commonwealth of Virginia,” McAuliffe said.
Down the ballot, the state’s Democrats are also capitalizing on the issue in a bid to keep their 55-45 majority in the House of Delegates.
“There’s no doubt in my mind if the same Republicans take back the House and the governor’s mansion in November, it would be no shock or surprise that they will do everything in their power to pass the same law, the same draconian law that just passed in Texas,” Virginia House of Delegates Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn (D) told The Hill. “They will make that a reality here in the commonwealth.”
Democrats pointed to a poll from the left-leaning firm Change Research released last week showing 59 percent of the state’s voters said they wanted abortion to be legal in all or most cases.
However, Republicans argue abortion is not a top priority for most voters in the commonwealth, instead pointing to the economy and crime rates as top issues.
“By and large, the things we hear most about on the campaign trail are whether or not people are going to have safe neighborhoods, whether or not they’re going to have better schools and better education for their children, and whether or not the economy is going to get better,” said one GOP strategist.
Republicans also say McAuliffe and his allies are elevating the issue in an attempt to raise enthusiasm among their own ranks.
“He’s using this as a clear political opportunity to reverse some of the waning enthusiasm that they’ve been experiencing,” said another GOP operative, referring to a Monmouth University survey released last week showing Republican voters leading Democratic voters in terms of enthusiasm, 55 percent to 36 percent.
Recent polls show McAuliffe leading Youngkin among registered voters.
When asked about the Texas law Wednesday, Youngkin said McAuliffe would use his “extreme views” to divide Virginians on the issue. But Youngkin did not definitively say whether he supported the Texas law.
"I'm pro-life. I've said it from the beginning of this campaign," he said. "I believe in exceptions in the case of rape, in the case of incest and in the case where the mother's life is in jeopardy."
The Texas law went into effect Wednesday and the Supreme Court declined to block it. The law makes abortion illegal after a fetal heartbeat is detected, which can take place as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. The measure makes exceptions for medical emergencies, but not for rape or incest.
But abortion was already becoming a point of discussion in the Old Dominion’s elections before the Lone Star State passed the restrictive law.
In July, the left-wing news site the American Independent surfaced footage from a campaign event in which Youngkin was recorded telling a voter that he could not take the risk of talking publicly about his anti-abortion stance for fear that it would turn off independent voters in Virginia. But Youngkin added that he would “start going on offense” when he was governor and had a majority in the House of Delegates.
Youngkin’s campaign said the video was deceptively recorded, but Democrats have used it to raise the alarm over the importance of the more local House of Delegates races.
Democrats and abortion right activists say they are already gearing up to target a number of Republican candidates on the issue, zeroing in on districts like the 84th House District, which is represented by Republican Del. Glenn Davis. Additionally, Democrats and abortion rights activists are defending Democratic incumbents including Dels. Nancy Guy (D) in the 83rd District, Rodney Willett (D) in the 73rd District, Wendy Gooditis in the 10th District and Alex Askew in the 85th District.
“The extremity of this is shocking enough that I’m hoping it will get people to the polls who might otherwise be a little too relaxed for my taste,” said Gooditis, whose district includes parts of Loudoun, Frederick and Clarke counties.
But not all Virginia Republicans are on board with the Texas law. While Democrats have hit Gooditis’s Republican opponent Nick Clemente for his support of defunding Planned Parenthood, Clemente called the Texas ban “Orwellian.”
“I unequivocally oppose the bill in Texas and would oppose it here,” he told The Hill. “I am committed to making affordable adoptions available to everyone regardless of their income status. This is one thing that I believe everyone should be able to agree on as the best way to move forward in reducing abortions and encouraging life as a society.”
Youngkin and McAuliffe released dueling ads targeting each other on abortion earlier this month. McAuliffe’s ad featured the footage of Youngkin saying he could not talk about his abortion stance for fear of losing swing voters, while Youngkin’s ad tied McAuliffe to efforts from Virginia Democrats to loosen abortion restrictions.
Virginia Republicans have hit their Democratic counterparts over 2019 legislation proposed by Del. Kathy Tran (D) that would have required only one doctor to determine whether a pregnancy threatened a woman’s health or life and allow the procedure to take place during a pregnancy’s third trimester.
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam came under fire when asked about the legislation that same year, saying that third-term abortions are rare and typically occur when an infant is severely deformed or unable to survive after birth. At the time, Republicans held the majority in the chamber and ended up tabling the legislation.
“When Terry McAuliffe’s lips are moving, you can bet that he’s attempting to distract voters from his extreme positions—in this case, abortions on demand and when a child can feel pain, taxpayer dollars for abortion, and even support for Kathy Tran’s bill that allows babies to be aborted until birth,” Virginia Republican Party Chairman Rich Anderson said in a statement this week.
When asked by The Hill on Thursday about his support of the legislation, McAuliffe noted that he was not in the session at the time of the legislation, adding that “the issue was about if a woman’s life is in danger.”
“In rural communities there was a request that you have a physician and then you have two consenting physicians, so you would have three physicians in order to sign off,” he said. “In rural parts of Virginia many communities don’t have one doctor let alone three doctors.”
But polling provides a mixed picture.
A Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted in 2019 after Northam’s comments found that 60 percent of Virginians said they believed that third trimester abortions should be legal if the woman’s life is at risk, while 33 percent said it should not be legal.
But an Associated Press-NORC found that 80 percent of Americans polled said that abortion should be illegal in the third trimester, while 65 percent said it should be illegal in all or most cases in the second trimester, and 61 percent said it should be legal in the first few months of pregnancy.
Abortion rights activists are sounding the alarm over possible GOP victories in the fall, pointing out that the state had more abortion restrictions under Republican control.
In 2012, then-Gov. Bob McDonnell, the last Republican governor of Virginia, signed legislation that required women to undergo an abdominal ultrasound procedure to get an abortion. In 2020, the new Democratic majority repealed the law.
“I remember countless times standing up on the floor of the House giving these speeches, just listening to the Republicans and what they were doing and the bills they were introducing,” said Filler-Corn, who was first elected in 2010. “Women need to be able to make their own health care decisions with their doctors, not with their delegates.”