Virginia Democrats are fighting for a razor-thin edge on abortion rights

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Democrats appear to be on track to widen their majority in the Virginia Senate — a key chamber they’re defending this year in a state where abortion access is on the line.

As of Wednesday afternoon, Democrat Aaron Rouse, a former National Football League player and former Virginia Beach City Council member, held a narrow lead over his Republican opponent Kevin Adams in a special election to fill a vacancy in the Virginia Senate’s Seventh District. Though Rouse has already declared victory, there are some absentee ballots yet to be counted that could erase his less than 350-vote lead. If Rouse prevails, Democrats would have a 22-18 edge in the chamber, which commenced its annual session on Wednesday.

The race may decide whether state Republicans can take up additional restrictions on abortion this year. Though Democrats make up the majority of the Senate, their margin would only be 21-19 in the chamber if Adams wins. Adams has said that he supports a 15-week abortion ban proposed by Virginia Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin. And Democratic state Sen. Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond) is openly anti-abortion and has said that he would keep an “open mind” when it comes to further restrictions on abortion. That means the chamber could potentially be tied on the issue, and Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears, also an anti-abortion politician, would cast the tiebreaking vote.

Virginia is one of many states considering further restrictions on abortion this year. Bills that would ban abortions after fetal cardiac activity is detected in Nebraska, that would prevent local governments from funding employees seeking an abortion through their health plans or reimbursement for out-of-state travel in Tennessee, and that would ban abortion before 12 weeks of pregnancy in North Carolina are among those on the table. The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion rights think tank, found that 24 states were likely to ban abortion or had already done so heading into 2023.

That’s made abortion a key issue for Democrats in state legislative races, including for Rouse. He ran multiple TV ads focusing on the issue and received more than $100,000 from Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia this cycle.

“When I was in the NFL, my job was to be the last line of defense. Right now, that’s what we need in Richmond,” he says in one December ad. “Women’s rights are on the line, but I’ll never back down.”

Ahead of Rouse’s seeming win, the threat to abortion access in the state was very real. Currently, Virginia allows abortions up to about 26 weeks of pregnancy and, after that, only in cases where three doctors attest that the pregnant person’s life is at risk. Youngkin’s proposal for a 15-week ban includes exceptions for rape, incest, and to save the pregnant person’s life. Democrats have argued that the governor’s proposal could result in prison time for women and doctors, but Youngkin’s office has dismissed that framing as “political posturing” and said that he will not imprison women.

Youngkin has also proposed barring state Medicaid from covering abortions when a fetus has an “incapacitating” physical or mental deformity, and preventing state funds from being used to support abortion services.

Those measures might pass in the Republican-controlled state House. But if Rouse does win, that would likely foreclose the possibility of a tie in the state Senate and doom Youngkin’s proposal for now.

Rouse’s apparent victory would maintain the status quo on abortion rights in Virginia, but only temporarily.

Democrats could be down a vote in the state Senate if Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) steps down, reopening the possibility of a tie. She’s widely favored to win a special election to fill a vacant federal congressional seat in February, but she told the Virginia Mercury that she’s confident that any votes on abortion legislation will conclude before she’d have to resign and that the Democratic caucus will hold strong against further abortion restrictions. It’s not clear whether there would be time to hold a special election to fill that seat, given that it would have to happen at least 55 days before the June 20 primary.

Then, in November, all 140 state legislative seats are up for grabs, and if Republicans can defend their majority in the state House and net even just one seat in the state Senate, Youngkin’s proposal, or even more extreme abortion restrictions, such as a proposed ban after 12 weeks of pregnancy, could be back on the table. Youngkin has previously said that he would “gleefully” sign “any bill [to protect life] that comes to my desk” — not just one of his own devising.

At the same time, abortion rights groups in the state are trying to further protect abortion rights. REPRO Rising Virginia, an abortion rights group, is pushing for a state constitutional amendment that would establish a right to reproductive freedom and to make pregnancy decisions without discrimination, as well as protect abortion providers and their patients from being criminalized.

Though other states have successfully passed similar amendments enshrining abortion rights in their state constitutions over the last year, the amendment probably won’t happen in Virginia anytime soon, especially so long as Republicans control the state House. Any amendment would have to pass the legislature two years in a row with an intervening state House election before going to the voters.

If Rouse wins, that would bode well for Democrats who are looking to take back the Virginia House of Delegates and defend their state Senate majority this fall.

They only need three more seats to win the House, and if they succeed in widening their majority in the state Senate with a win in the Seventh District, they would have a cushion heading into November, when a new electoral map drawn by a court-appointed special master will shake up the dynamics for Democratic incumbents. The maps are thought to slightly advantage Democrats, but some Democratic lawmakers have argued that the new map should have delivered a bigger edge to their party and unfairly pits incumbents against each other.

“Virginia is a huge priority,” said Jessica Post, president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the fundraising arm of the Democratic Party dedicated to state legislative races. “We need to do a lot of work, especially with Democratic incumbents, to introduce them to their new constituents and [ensure] they have a great record to run on.”

Democrats anticipate that Youngkin will spend significantly in state legislative races ahead of a rumored 2024 presidential bid, which he has not yet ruled out. A big win this year could help to position him as a figure akin to Florida Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis or Michigan Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who are both seen as having a future in national politics in part because of their ability to hold onto and deepen majorities in their state legislatures.

“We think that Youngkin, because he’s both personally wealthy and he has a great ability to raise money nationally, is going to try to use this as a proving ground,” Post said. “We’re hoping that we can find the national interest in Virginia that we’ve been able to find in prior cycles and humble Youngkin and manage some of his ambitions in the state.”

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