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Virginia is the next big battleground for abortion rights and may send a signal for 2024

By SARAH RANKIN and SARA BURNETT, Associated Press
Published: September 20, 2023, 7:59am

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Democrat Russet Perry has knocked on thousands of doors in a swing district outside the nation’s capital as she campaigns for a seat that could decide control of the Virginia state Senate in November. The issue that comes up the most — particularly among women and even from some Republicans and independents, she says — is protecting abortion rights.

The topic has motivated voters and upended traditional political wisdom in election after election since a conservative majority on the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated the federal right to the procedure last year. But it may be especially front of mind in Virginia, the only state in the South that has not imposed new abortion restrictions since Roe v. Wade fell.

Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin — whose push to ban the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy was blocked by the Democratic-controlled Senate — has pledged to try again if the GOP wins full control in the state.

“I see this fight and this race as being pivotal to what happens to many, many, many people, not just here, but across the entire South,” said Perry, a former prosecutor and ex-CIA officer who noted that women from throughout the region have sought abortions in Virginia since Roe was overturned.

For those on either side of the debate, Virginia — where all state House and Senate seats are up for election and early voting begins Friday — is among the biggest fights this year over abortion rights. The Commonwealth’s odd-year elections are often an indicator of the national mood heading into major election years and offer both parties a chance to test campaign strategies, messaging and policy ahead of 2024 contests for president, Congress and other offices.

Democrats are banking on abortion rights to be a winning issue, just as it was in the 2022 midterms and in earlier contests this year in Virginia and elsewhere. They hope it will lift candidates in a place that Democrat Joe Biden won in 2020 but where voters a year later backed Youngkin, who is still mentioned as a possible late 2024 entry for president.

The Democratic National Committee recently invested $1.2 million into Virginia races, and Vice President Kamala Harris was in the state Thursday to kick off a college tour aimed at mobilizing young voters to fight for reproductive rights, action on climate change and other issues.

Republicans are centering their focus elsewhere in an echo of Youngkin’s winning 2021 campaign — when the businessman defeated a former governor at a time when Roe was still law. They’re talking about kitchen table issues, such as the cost of living, public safety and protecting the role of parents in directing their children’s education.

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Zack Roday, the coordinated campaign director at Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC, said Democrats are focused on abortion because they “have nothing to run on.” He accused Democrats of misrepresenting Youngkin’s proposed 15-week limit on abortions as a total ban. Most abortions take place before 15 weeks, and Youngkin’s proposal includes exceptions for rape, incest and to save the life of the mother.

“They have no vision, no agenda, nothing to offer the Commonwealth,” Roday said. “It’s all fear and lies.”

Leading abortion opponents also see Virginia as a place where Republicans can reframe the discussion and avoid the “ostrich strategy” of trying to evade the issue. They have pushed GOP candidates to explain their personal positions, to speak compassionately about both unborn children and the women who may seek abortions, and to push policies such as improving the foster care and adoption systems.

The country’s most prominent anti-abortion group hired Kellyanne Conway, a GOP pollster who was President Donald Trump’s senior counselor, to advise candidates in Virginia and elsewhere on their handling of the issue.

“It’s not enough to just say, well, I’m pro-life,” said Kaitlin Makuski, political director for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America. She pushed back on Democratic criticism of Youngkin and other Republicans as “extreme” on abortion, saying the 15-week ban was “common-sense legislation.”

Abortion rights advocates say they are seeing voter support grow as more states impose restrictions and the reality of life without Roe becomes clearer.

“There’s basically a never-ending drip of horror stories from the states on abortion bans,” said Mini Timmaraju, president of Reproductive Freedom for All, citing stories about women denied care and young rape victims forced to carry pregnancies to term. She also dismissed anti-abortion activists’ attempts to shift their messaging.

“That’s their new thing. They want to be ‘compassionate.’ It’s garbage,” she said. “It’s wild to me that they think anyone will buy that they are compassionate on this issue at all, or that they really, truly believe a 15-week ban is perceived as a compassionate compromise.”

Polling shows people’s opinions on abortion in the U.S. are complex, though most want the procedure to be legal, at least in the initial stages of pregnancy. An Associated Press/NORC poll conducted in June found about two-thirds of Americans said abortion should generally be legal.

About half of Americans said abortions should be permitted at the 15-week mark, the poll found. By 24 weeks of pregnancy, about two-thirds of Americans said it should be barred.

On the campaign trail in 2021, Youngkin generally sought to avoid discussing abortion in detail and was secretly recorded acknowledging that “as a campaign topic” the issue wouldn’t help him win the needed support of independent voters.

Virginia law allows abortion during the first and second trimesters. The procedure may be performed during the third trimester only if multiple physicians certify that continuing the pregnancy is likely to “substantially and irremediably” impair the mental or physical health of the woman or result in her death.

Virginia Democrats point to two in-state elections since the fall of Roe as showing the potency of the issue. One is the victory of Democratic Sen. Aaron Rouse in a January special election. Rouse flipped a previously red seat after campaigning heavily on protecting abortion access. The other is the resounding defeat of incumbent Sen. Joe Morrissey, a scandal-plagued, self-described “pro-life” Democrat, by his June primary challenger, Lashrecse Aird, who centered her campaign around abortion rights.

Nationally, Democrats are buoyed by the outcome in a half dozen states, including conservative Kentucky and Kansas, where voters opted to protect reproductive rights on abortion-related ballot measures. In August, Ohio voters rejected a measure pushed by Republicans that was seen as a proxy for an abortion rights question on the ballot this fall.

Perry used her first TV ad to both introduce herself and hit Republican opponent Juan Pablo Segura on the issue of abortion.

Segura, the founder of a maternal health care startup, has said he supports Youngkin’s proposal to ban abortions after 15 weeks. Most abortions in Virginia take place before then, according to federal data.

Segura’s campaign did not make him available for an interview.

In a statement, Segura criticized Perry, saying she has a “weak record” as a prosecutor battling crime and in addressing the “skyrocketing cost of living” — issues he said he’s hearing about from voters “constantly.”

“Voters are making it very clear that this election is about much more than one issue,” he said.

Perry defended her record and said she believes Virginia — and her Senate matchup against Segura — will be bellwethers for 2024.

“I see this race as sending a signal across the country as to what the impact of overturning Roe is,” she said. “I think that that will play a role next year as well.”