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Battleground Virginia

The Old Dominion’s neck-and-neck legislative elections have huge implications for abortion rights, public education, gun safety, and Glenn Youngkin’s political future.

Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin greets supporters during an early-voting rally, September 21, 2023, in Petersburg, Virginia (Steve Heleber/AP Photo).,

In a less polarized climate, the “off-off-year” contests in Virginia for school board members, state prosecutors, sheriffs, treasurers, revenue commissioners, county clerks, boards of supervisors, soil and water conservation directors, and the entire General Assembly—as well as the hyperlocal issues that animate the races—would fly way under the national radar.

That’s not the case this November. Virginia is the only Southern state not to pass any new abortion restrictions after the decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. That was not for a lack of desire on the part of its Republican governor, Glenn Youngkin. Just six months into his term when the Dobbs ruling came down, Youngkin said that he would “happily and gleefully sign any bill to protect life.” He later proposed a 15-week ban with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother.

Earlier this year, the state Senate, which has a one-seat Democratic majority, defeated the bill in committee, so it never made it to the House of Delegates, where Republicans hold a three-vote majority. This followed a party-line pattern since Youngkin came on the scene, with Senate Democrats halting a far-right Republican plan.

That dynamic has turned election season in the Old Dominion into a nationalized proxy battle on abortion, stoked by a Republican governor who is uncommonly anxious to step into the presidency after barely two years in office. To get there, he has to prove that he can turn a purplish state red by securing a GOP trifecta, bringing Virginia more in line with the Deep South. That goal runs straight into a still-mad-as-hell crew of Democratic voters. Mad that they got saddled with Youngkin, they are even madder now.

Despite his oft-repeated preferences for a 15-week abortion ban, Youngkin has been steadily funneling dollars from his Spirit of Virginia PAC to Republican candidates who support total bans. Though Youngkin is often mentioned as an alternative to Republican Ron DeSantis in the presidential race, an outright ban could put Virginia on a path similar to Florida. In April, DeSantis signed a six-week abortion ban that would take effect even if the state supreme court lets a 15-week ban remain in place.

Youngkin remains relatively popular in the state, with a 50 percent approval rating in a late-January poll from Christopher Newport University’s Wason Center for Civic Leadership. But the roadblocks to his agenda from Senate Democrats have arguably helped him maintain his favorability. Youngkin’s positions on abortion, as well as rollbacks on environmental measures like the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), do not match up with voter sentiment. A plurality, 43 percent, prefer Virginia’s abortion status quo (where pregnant people can seek abortions up to 26 weeks). A majority of Virginians also support RGGI. On issues like gun control, where Youngkin has shied away from doing much of anything, a 2019 Wason Center poll found that nearly 90 percent of Virginians supported universal background checks, more than 70 percent support red-flag laws, and a majority 54 percent support assault weapons bans.

Youngkin has been helming his own get-out-the-vote (GOTV) effort, encouraging Republicans to take advantage of early voting, once a GOP target, which began last week and runs until the Saturday before Election Day. With a little more than a month to go, what looks certain is that voter engagement is high. More than three times as many people have already cast ballots compared to 2022, a year with federal candidates on the ballot. This year, 33,560 people have already voted, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. In 2022, 11,433 people had cast ballots by September 26.

Overall, this year’s legislative races are particularly critical since there will be a new cast of characters operating in the Virginia General Assembly. An independent redistricting commission completely shredded the old maps and old alliances, devising Senate districts that pit two or even three incumbents against one another. They also created 11 new districts with no incumbents. In the House of Delegates, of the 100 districts, half have matched up incumbents against one another. Both the Senate majority and minority leaders are retiring and, in the House, Democrats currently in the minority will see new leadership as well.

Jamie Lockhart, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, has seen an increase in volunteer engagement, with double the number of people canvassing than in 2021. She has been out canvasing since a January state Senate special election that saw a Democratic victory, and says she has had good feedback, even from voters who don’t always back the group’s positions.

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“That has been encouraging in this universe of people who aren’t necessarily supporters that they’ve been supportive and are really just feeling strongly about wanting to see their reproductive rights protected,” says Lockhart. “I don’t trust that [Youngkin] would stop at 15 weeks if he had majorities in the House and Senate.”

Lockhart described abortion as a “very top-of-mind issue” in three races in the Urban Crescent of the state: the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C., Richmond, and Hampton Roads in southeastern Virginia, the state’s key population centers where the most competitive races are under way.

The Planned Parenthood Virginia PAC plans to spend $1.5 million to support its endorsed candidates in races where abortion is a defining issue. One of those races is the Manassas area of Northern Virginia House contest pitting Democrat Josh Thomas, an attorney and Marine Corps veteran, against Republican John Stirrup, a former county board of supervisors member, who has been recorded twice saying that he would support a total abortion ban. However, he has also told The Washington Post that he believes a 15-week ban would be more palatable to state lawmakers.

In another key race in a Democratic-leaning, suburban Richmond district that includes parts of Henrico County, Republican state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant faces off against Democrat Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg. Dunnavant supported a 22-week ban last year, and has announced support for Youngkin’s 15-week ban.

In a new Democratic-trending district that makes up most of Virginia Beach, Democrat Michael Feggans, an Air Force veteran and tech entrepreneur, takes on Republican Del. Karen Greenhalgh. Feggans has noted that the most important issue for the state is reproductive health care and abortion access; Greenhalgh says it is the economy.

Luis Aguilar, the Virginia director of CASA in Action, a legislative advocacy group that works with immigrants and communities of color, believes that the Democratic Party has improved its GOTV efforts since 2021, particularly when it comes to making people aware of early voting. But the Republicans have upped their game too, not only on early voting but also with bilingual campaigning—which is something that the group hasn’t seen on the Democratic side.

Democratic legislative majorities are also key to preventing retrenchment on gun violence, which has emerged as a key issue. In 2020, the state passed background checks for point-of-purchase gun sales, and forced people under restraining orders to give up weapons. However, this year, state lawmakers failed to pass stronger gun control measures, such as tougher storage laws in homes with minors, in the wake of three shootings in Newport News in southeastern Virginia (one involving a first-grader wounding his elementary school teacher). Four bills passed the Democratic Senate, but failed to advance in the Republican House.

Education financing has also been a flashpoint, with lawmakers mired in a monthslong budget impasse. Youngkin’s preference for permanent corporate tax cuts ran straight into Senate Democrats’ interest in increasing education dollars. A special session of the legislature finally resolved the issue in mid-September, with the governor finally signing a compromise two-year budget agreement. Youngkin gave up the corporate tax cuts for a smaller package of tax rebates; Democratic lawmakers got nearly all of the $1 billion in education funding they sought.

Overall, Aguilar sees Republican candidates touting positions that are “anti-choice and anti-public education.” “There is a lot of conversation about parental rights but there is really no pro-public school funding agenda,” he says. “When it comes to gun control and school safety there’s no pro agenda—they claim that they are the victims of people trying to take away their gun rights. They have such an anti agenda that they are not willing to make the investment in their own people, in Virginians.”

Given the stakes, a close election is likely assured. The final tallies in Virginia may produce a legislature as narrowly divided as the current body, unless a powerful surge of pro-choice voters determined to preserve reproductive rights keeps the state purple.

Prospect senior editor and award-winning journalist Gabrielle Gurley writes and edits work on states and cities, transportation and infrastructure, civil rights, and climate. Follow @gurleygg.

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