Dec 16, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Virginia emerges as abortion rights' next battleground

Illustration of the Virginia State Capitol with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Virginia Democrats are growing worried that an upcoming special election for state Senate could turn Virginia into an abortion battleground and boost Gov. Glenn Youngkin's conservative credentials ahead of a possible presidential bid.

What's happening: Democrats hold only a three-seat majority in the state Senate — one of which is occupied by an anti-abortion rights Democrat. The Jan. 10 special election for the seat left open after GOP state Sen. Jen Kiggans' election to Congress could make Virginia's legislature the unlikely center of the political universe to begin the year.

Battle lines: Democrat Aaron Rouse, who's running in the special election, told Axios his race "cannot be more important to making sure we don’t roll back the hands of time for women."

  • Jamie Lockhart, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, told Axios the race is a top priority. "If we lose then, there is some risk during session that [an abortion bill] could get to the governor’s desk," she said.
  • SBA Pro-Life America, an influential anti-abortion group, considers it a key race too. The group told Axios it will be heavily engaged in the election and with Gov. Youngkin to craft anti-abortion rights legislation that could pass the chamber.

The big picture: Republicans have already introduced multiple anti-abortion bills and Youngkin has said he will "gleefully" sign such measures into law if given the chance.

Reality check: Partisan control of the chambers won't change after the state special election, making it difficult for the GOP to get anti-abortion legislation on the floor. But Dems say it's a must-win seat to pad their margins and neutralize the outsized power of anti-abortion Democratic state Sen. Joe Morrissey.

The intrigue: Morrissey himself is running in another special election — this one to fill the deep-blue congressional seat vacated by the death of Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.) last month.

  • Morrissey is appealing to Republicans for support in the Dec. 20 primary, which will likely decide who wins in the Feb. 21 special election.
  • The favorite in the race is state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, who is staunchly pro-abortion rights — underscoring how the issue has become a dominant theme in both the federal and state special elections.

Between the lines: With former President Trump's iron grip on the GOP beginning to weaken, Youngkin is viewed as a potential 2024 Republican contender. A chance to restrict abortion rights in Virginia could pay massive dividends in a GOP primary.

  • "I do worry he will try everything he can to stand out to an extremely conservative, anti-abortion base," Lockhart told Axios, pointing to other base-friendly steps he's taken, such as restricting the rights of trans students.
  • SBA Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser has maintained that abortion will be a deciding factor in the 2024 primary: "If there’s one presidential candidate that says this is a states issue, they won’t win."
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