How one Virginia special election became the next abortion battleground

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décembre 23, 2022

A special election for the Virginia state Senate is drawing big dollars and national attention in the latest sign of how the abortion issue is driving every level of politics in the post-Roe era.

The January contest to fill the Senate seat vacated by Republican Jen Kiggans, who was elected to Congress in November, does not threaten Democrats’ majority in the chamber. But pro- and anti-abortion rights groups, who are spending tens of thousands of dollars, believe the race could significantly impact people’s ability to access the procedure in the purple state.

Abortion is legal in Virginia until the third trimester, but Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, has proposed prohibiting the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy in his recently released budget.

Youngkin doesn’t yet have the votes to enact that ban — but Democrats’ narrow majority in the state Senate has put this special election between Virginia Beach City Councilman and former NFL safety Aaron Rouse, a Democrat, and Navy veteran Kevin Adams, a Republican, in the national spotlight.

The frenzy over the state Senate seat — which covers parts of Virginia Beach and Norfolk and was won by Kiggans by 511 votes in 2019 — reveals just how granular pro- and anti-abortion rights groups are getting in the post-Roe era, and is “another proof point that the fight for the future of abortion rights and abortion access is at the state level,” said Andrea Miller, president of the National Institute for Reproductive Health.

“These state-level races and, I would argue, increasingly municipal level races, are going to really determine the ability of people to make decisions about their reproductive lives,” Miller said. “That’s going to be our future particularly in these swing states, where there’s back and forth that’s constantly happening.”

While groups on both sides of the abortion debate often invest in state legislative races, this special election has attracted unusually high sums of money for a single legislative special election, groups on the ground say.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia’s PAC is spending nearly $100,000 on the race, in what the organization’s executive director, Jamie Lockhart, described as “by far the biggest investment we’ve made in a special election in the three years I’ve been with the PAC.”

And Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, which has historically focused on federal races, is spending $30,000 to reach 10,000 households over the phone, through mailers and via digital ads in line with its recent expansion in state-level races.

“If a pro-abortion candidate wins that race, we don’t have a path forward for next session and babies will continue to feel the pain of late-term abortions,” said Stephen Billy, vice president of state affairs at SBA Pro-Life America. “If we’re successful in Senate District 7 and a pro-life champion comes out as the senator there, we’ve got the opportunity to move pain-capable protections forward and get them through to Gov. Youngkin’s desk.”

Rouse, the Democratic candidate, is betting an abortion-focused message will carry him to victory in the state Senate race — mimicking a strategy that propelled other Democrats to victory in close contests during the midterm election.

“Listen, I’m not getting into the weeds of what a woman should be discussing with her health care professional. I support the current law of Virginia as it is and will fiercely defend against any legislation that will ban abortion in our state, our commonwealth,” Rouse said in an interview. “This seat is critical to ensure that we can protect the rights of women’s reproductive health care.”

And while Adams, the Republican, is public about his support for a 15-week abortion bill — even listing it as one of his platforms on his campaign website — he isn’t campaigning on it.

“Kevin Adams’ campaign is focused on the critical issues facing our commonwealth: lowering taxes for working families, creating jobs, and keeping our neighborhoods safe,” said Kendyl Parker, Adams’ campaign manager.

Some Republicans and anti-abortion groups argue Democrats are using the prospect of an abortion ban in the state as a scare tactic to win the special legislative election.

“It’s manipulative on the part of the Democratic candidate to suggest that that is what the Republican candidate would be able to do if he was part of the Senate. That’s not the case, because that’s not going to come before him,” said Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, an anti-abortion group. “That kind of legislation definitely is not on the table right now in Virginia.”

Even so, the group still plans to turn out its members in support of Adams.

“We can’t lose any seat,” Gans Turner said. “There is a razor-thin margin. To lose a pro-life vote in the Senate at this point is not a good thing.”

Democrats, meanwhile, contend the future of abortion access is at stake — and say the race is all the more critical after Virginia state Sen. Jennifer McClellan, a staunch abortion-rights advocate, won the Democratic nomination to fill the seat left vacant after the death of Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.).

McClellan’s primary victory all but guarantees she will win McEachin’s overwhelmingly Democratic district come February — thereby reducing Democrats’ margin in the state Senate from three seats to two, and possibly positioning state Sen. Joe Morrissey, an anti-abortion Democrat, as a crucial swing vote.

If Democrats win the special state Senate election in January, then even after McClellan leaves they will hold a 21-18 majority and Morrissey becomes a non-issue for the pro-abortion-rights side; but if Republicans win — and Democrats hold a 20-19 majority — abortion rights groups worry Youngkin could use creative legislative maneuvering to get an anti-abortion bill to the floor of the Senate, where Morrissey could be the deciding vote.

“We are one seat away from anti-abortion measures coming through in the state of Virginia,” Rouse said.

A Morrissey aide did not respond to requests for comment.

Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia’s Lockhart described Morrissey as a “real wild card.” Morrissey, who is known for breaking with his party on key votes, voted against a 2020 bill that rolled back several abortion restrictions and has said that he would consider prohibiting abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.

“For us, it’s making sure we have the seat so that’s not a concern,” Lockhart said. “If Aaron Rouse wins — and we know we have an abortion-rights champion there — that flip of that seat is enough to safeguard our rights and ensure there’s not an abortion ban that gets to the governor’s desk.”

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