Virginia is a critical Southern battleground in the fight over abortion policy ahead of 2024.
Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin wants to enact a 15-week abortion ban, calling it "reasonable."
Democrats are pushing back, arguing that such a ban is a slippery slope to more restrictions.
In Virginia, there's little dispute that abortion is on the ballot.
The November legislative races in the Commonwealth are the first election cycle since last year's overturn of Roe v. Wade where every seat in both chambers — 100 seats in the state House of Delegates and 40 seats in the state Senate — are up for grabs.
Democrats in the Commonwealth had been ascendant for much of the past decade, but they now have a major roadblock in Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who turned out conservatives and flipped just enough swing voters in 2021 to win that year's gubernatorial election.
The November elections have already scrambled Virginia's political calculus, as candidates across the Commonwealth are running in new legislative districts that resulted from the state's new redistricting process. A slew of veteran lawmakers opted out of running for reelection this year, which is poised to inject fresh blood into a legislature known for its collegiality and stability.
Here's how the explosive abortion debate is impacting races across Virginia:
Republicans want a governing trifecta
When Youngkin won the governorship, he brought along now-Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears and now-Attorney General Jason Miyares in a GOP sweep that put Democrats on notice that Virginia still had a purplish tinge.
The House of Delegates flipping from Democratic control to the GOP that year further bolstered this fact.
Democrats still have a lot going for them: They have won every presidential election in Virginia since Barack Obama carried the state in 2008. Their strength in Northern Virginia and Hampton Roads — and increasingly in Richmond's suburbs — has often allowed them to offset the rural strength that Republicans enjoy. And most Virginia voters back some form of abortion rights, with a recent Washington Post-Schar School poll revealing that 51% of likely voters think Democrats are better suited to handle the issue, giving them a 17-point edge over the GOP.
But with the uncertainty that comes with running in new districts across the state, Republicans believe it's a great opportunity for them to expand on their current 48-46 House of Delegates majority (with six vacancies) and win back the state Senate, where Democrats have a 22-18 majority.
A GOP trifecta would be a stunning development for Virginia, which only two years ago had a government controlled by Democrats, with then-Gov. Ralph Northam signing bills that vastly expanded voting rights and abolished the death penalty, among other measures.
With a GOP majority in both chambers, Youngkin would also be able to push a conservative agenda ahead of a potential presidential run.
Democrats are pointing to abortion
Youngkin wants to impose a 15-week abortion ban in Virginia. The Commonwealth currently permits abortion through the second trimester, or approximately 26 weeks, which currently makes the state a safe haven among its Southern counterparts, many of which have adopted far stricter regulations in the post-Roe landscape.
Abortions in the third trimester are rarely performed in the state, and only occur when three physicians can affirm that the woman's health is at risk.
This year, Democrats in the state Senate were able to block his proposal, making the chamber a bulwark against his plans.
So Youngkin has sought to campaign across the state for GOP candidates, calling the 15-week limit a "reasonable" measure and seeking to paint Democrats as the ones who are extreme on the issue — arguing that they aren't supporting limits that most people would support.
But Democrats have forcefully pushed back on the GOP narrative, arguing that the 15-week proposal is simply a stalking horse for the party to further restrict the procedure in Virginia. This year, other Southern states like Florida and South Carolina passed six-week abortion bans.
With Democratic candidates having successfully employed abortion access as a critical issue in many US House and Senate races across the country last year and Republicans looking to hone an abortion message that doesn't drive away independents, the Virginia legislative races are the opening salvo on an issue that isn't going away in 2024.
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