RICHMOND — Abortion polled as a top election issue in Virginia and likely propelled victories on Tuesday across several states.
Democrats attributed takeover of the state General Assembly to their defense of abortion rights. They campaigned against the Republican Party’s view of abortion access as too restrictive and out of step with Virginia citizens.
Democrats retained control in the Senate with a narrow 21-19 majority, and barely flipped the House of Delegates. They currently sit at a 51-48 majority, with one undeclared race that shows the Republican candidate in the lead. The lead hinges on approximately 200 votes, as of Friday afternoon.
Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, D-Henrico, won his Senate District 16 race against incumbent Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico. He was also one of four candidates to beat an incumbent; two in the Senate and two in the House.
VanValkenburg’s victory was one of the most decisive for Democrats among districts seen as competitive. He attributed this to voter fear of the Republican agenda surrounding reproductive rights.
“I think one is that people were afraid that if Republicans gained control, they were going to take away women’s rights,” VanValkenburg said. “I think abortion access was of course a huge issue during our race and across the state.”
Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Fairfax, said Dunnavant’s views on abortion access cost her.
“It is a district that has always favored a woman’s ability to make their own health care decisions,” Surovell said. “Dunnavant’s views were out of step with the voters of that district.”
Dunnavant’s new redistricted constituency also had a more Democratic lean. The senator voted against a 15-week ban earlier in the year, because it did not have exceptions for the mother.
Abortion has been a source of conflict between the two parties, according to former Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling.
“They obviously think that they can make some inroads by arguing that Republicans want to ban abortion,” Bolling said.
Republicans ran on central issues such as crime and safety, the economy and parents’ rights. They presented their position on abortion as a reasonable compromise, with mostly unified messaging around a 15-week limit. They portrayed Democrats as radicals when accused of wanting to ban abortion.
The position of the Virginia Republican Party is clear and reasonable, according to Ken Nunnenkamp, executive director of the Republican Party of Virginia.
“I think Gov. Youngkin has been pretty straightforward, and the Republican legislature has also been pretty straightforward, as have all of our candidates,” Nunnenkamp said in an interview before the election. “That is what we support, 15 weeks.”
The Republican position included three exceptions: rape, incest, and threat to health of the mother, Nunnenkamp said.
“Unrestricted abortions up until the moment of birth in our opinion is an extremist view,” Nunnenkamp said. “Fifteen weeks with the three exceptions is not an extremist view.”
Democrats argued their position is the more moderate one because they want to keep the current law in place.
“It does make sure that women have the right to choose,” said Shyam Raman, executive director of the Virginia Democratic Party.
Virginia currently has a restriction in place after the first trimester of pregnancy that the procedure must be performed in a state-licensed hospital. The abortion can only be performed after the second trimester if the pregnancy would result in death or impairment of mental or physical health of the mother, and three physicians must agree. Life support measures must also be in place and utilized if there is any evidence of viability.
Twenty-one U.S. states now either have an abortion ban or restrict the procedure earlier in pregnancy than the constitutional standard established decades ago by Roe v. Wade, according to the New York Times. The U.S. Supreme Court removed the reproductive protections last year in its Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling and granted states the power to decide.
“We are seeing it in real time, being removed as a right that women in this country have held for for over 50 years,” Raman said.
Voters have lost trust in Republicans, because they have previously pushed for more restrictions than they said they would, according to Raman.
“When Susan Collins voted for Brett Kavanaugh and Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch, it was, ‘don’t worry, they’ll never overturn Roe,’” Raman said. “They promised.”
The Republican position was not as moderate a compromise as presented, according to Amanda Wintersieck. She is an associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, who studies political behavior and communication.
“Fifteen weeks is frankly not enough time for most women,” Wintersieck said. “To both know that they’re pregnant, to make the determination that is their choice between themselves and their doctor that is best for them, and to find the resources.”
Infant mortality rates increased for the first time in 20 years, according to a November report from the National Center for Health Statistics.
“For the first time in decades, maternal mortality and infant mortality are up in America,” Wintersieck said. “I think it’s going to be pretty clear as we move forward that the Dobbs decision is directly linked to those poor health outcomes for new mothers and their babies.”
The abortion access debate encouraged turnout, not just in Virginia but nationwide, according to Wintersieck.
“If we look at the last couple rounds of elections, it has been a major motivator for people turning out to vote,” Wintersieck said. “It’s been a major motivator for young people turning out to vote.”
Ohio voters also took to the polls Tuesday in emphatic support for an amendment to the state constitution to protect abortion access and other reproductive decisions. The amendment takes effect 30 days after the election.
Democratic Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear was reelected to his second term, after successfully pressing against his opponent’s anti-abortion stance. Abortion is illegal in Kentucky, except in cases to save a mother’s life.
Unofficial statewide turnout numbers from Wednesday indicate more than 39% of voters cast ballots in General Assembly races, according to the Virginia Public Access Project. Turnout ranged from 21% to more than 56% within House and Senate districts. VPAP has a visualization by district, here.
That would put overall turnout near the 42% mark from last time all seats in the General Assembly were up for election in 2019. Localities will certify election results by Nov. 14 and the State Board of Election will certify the election on Dec. 4.
Democrats celebrated incoming results at a watch party on election night. They hoisted blue bricks and celebrated building a “brick House” to match the “brick wall” that the Senate Democrats used the past two years to deflect Republican policy.
At the end of the night, Del. Don Scott D-Portsmouth, who is poised to become the next House speaker, reiterated that voters supported abortion access.
“I think the No.1 thing is that they rejected the extremism of trying to tell women what to do with their bodies,” Scott said.
Del. Dan Helmer, D-Fairfax, tied the issue of abortion access to freedom. Democrats won key races because voters want people who will fight for their freedom, he said.
“Our freedoms are on the line,” Helmer said. “Our democracy is on the line. It’s so important we have people who will fight for our freedom and Virginians see that.”
In his victory speech, VanValkenburg added that the election results were a sign voters want progress to continue.
“They want us to focus on the things that matter, whether it’s their kids’ schools, whether its bringing down health care costs, creating a dynamic economy, protecting our environment, trying to reduce gun violence, and they certainly don’t want us taking away women’s rights,” VanValkenburg said.
Capital News Service is a program of Virginia Commonwealth University’s Robertson School of Media and Culture. Students in the program provide state government coverage for a variety of media outlets in Virginia.