Virginia Republicans want to neutralize abortion as an election issue

Abortion has been a losing issue at the polls for Republicans across the country since the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. But now in Virginia, which is holding an election in early November, the party thinks it has found a formula to stop electoral infighting.

Statewide legislative races will offer a decisive test of the strategy led by Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who has united Republicans behind a high-profile campaign to ban abortion after 15 weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. The party calls it a “common sense” stance, unlike Democrats, who it says “do not support restrictions.”

The strategy aims to soften the image of Republicans as pro-abortion extremists, which led to losses in last year’s midterm elections and threatens further defeats next month in Ohio referendum i Kentucky governor’s race.

The approach is similar to that advocated by Republican Senate candidates in battleground states such as Arizona, Pennsylvania and Michigan, where the party has been open to some exceptions, a position that research shows is more popular than an outright ban.

Virginia Republicans don’t want to win over abortion rights supporters as much as they want to neutralize the party’s disadvantage with unintended voters. The hope is that these voters will prioritize a competing set of issues such as crime and the economy, on which Republicans have an edge in some polls.

All 140 seats in the state General Assembly are on the ballot this fall, and Republicans are looking to take full control. Democrats have made the threat to abortion rights their No. 1 issue, pouring money into ads and trying to motivate voters in the off-year elections, with President Biden’s unpopularity dampening enthusiasm.

If Republicans take majorities in both houses of the legislature under Mr. Youngkin, a governor with national ambitions, it would pave the way for Virginia to become the last Southern state to severely restrict abortion.

As of mid-October, Mr. Youngkin’s political action committee had $1.4 million advertising campaign is taking the offensive on the matter. Accusing Democrats of “misinformation,” he promotes a 15-week limit with exceptions as “reasonable” and “common sense.”

Younkin’s ad, targeted at swing districts and echoed by ads from individual Republicans running, breaks the formula of most GOP candidates in battleground states after the Roe v. Wade reversal in 2022, who shunned abortion in midterm races and often lost.

“We’re just not going to do it again in 2022,” said Zack Roday, director of coordinated campaigns for Mr. Youngkin’s political group.

Kaitlin Makuski, political director of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, a national anti-abortion group close to Mr. Youngkin, said that if Virginia Republicans prevail this year, it will send a clear signal to candidates in 2024 that relying on the ban 15 weeks can be successful.

“He and his team looked back at what they saw in 2022 and realized we can’t continue to bury our heads in the sand,” she said of the governor. “We have to move forward. This is a great template to follow.”

Existing Virginia lawswhich Democrats want to keep, allows abortions without restrictions in the second trimester, around 26 weeks, and beyond if three doctors certify that the pregnancy would “irreparably harm” the mother’s health.

“Virginia has a law that parallels Roe v. Wade, which allows women the freedom of choice to make their own health care decisions,” said Sen. Mamie Locke, chairwoman of the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus. “Why do you have to change the law to this 15-week ban? What is ‘reasonable’?”

Democrats point to other Republican-led states that have banned abortion in almost all circumstances and say the 15-week limit is a ruse that will give way to tighter restrictions if Republicans gain full control of the government. Last year, Mr. Youngkin they told conservative activists that he will “happily and joyfully” sign any bill to “protect life”. The governor insisted that he was only interested in the 15-week limit.

A ban of 15 weeks, just after the first trimester of pregnancy, has shown good results in some studies. Gallup survey this year found that 69 percent of American adults support abortion in the first trimester, but support drops to just 37 percent in the second trimester.

In a Washington Post-Schar School poll this month, Virginia voters were evenly split on the 15-week ban with exceptions: 46 percent supported such restrictions and 47 percent opposed.

But in an illustration of how abortion polls can produce mixed results, 51 percent of voters in the poll said they believe Democrats will do a better job on abortion compared to 34 percent who trust Republicans.

Even if the 15-week ban doesn’t convert many voters who make abortion rights a top issue — and most of those who say so are Democrats — it’s the GOP’s bet that they can neutralize the issue with independent voters. In a Washington Post poll, independents said they trust Democrats more on abortion, but Republicans more than Democrats on crime and the economy.

“Youngkin thinks Republicans have an advantage on a number of issues that people care about. They don’t support abortion, so they have to lower the threat level so people don’t vote on the issue,” said Bob Holsworth, founding director of the School of Government at Virginia Commonwealth University. “He wants them to vote on these other issues that he thinks he’s in better shape.”

Danny Diggs, a Republican running for state Senate in a key district around Newport News, enlisted his grown daughter Michelle to film advertisement about his support for the 15-week limit. “Take it from me,” she says in the ad, her father “won’t go to extremes.”

Over the weekend, as Mr. Diggs, a retired sheriff, greeted voters at a seafood festival in Poquoson, a city on the Chesapeake Bay, he said he would vote against any law restricting abortion before 15 weeks. “I’m fine at 15 weeks, that’s what I told people,” he said.

Charles Salas, 53, who is retired from the military, greeted Mr. Diggs as he stood by the Republican Party tent and liked what the candidate had to say. On abortion, he sounded more conservative than Mr. Youngkin’s proposed 15-week cutoff. “I haven’t decided how early, but I think it should be early enough,” he said. “I don’t believe it should be on demand and I shouldn’t have to pay for it,” he said.

Ann Holland, a 58-year-old school district employee, said she was undecided about the election, but on the issue of abortion, she wanted women to have a wide choice. “I was in my third month and I didn’t know,” she said with a laugh. “No morning sickness, no nothing.”

Mr. Diggs said the top issues he heard about were public safety and education when he knocked on the doors of thousands of Republican and independent voters. Abortion did not occur often. “I don’t think it’s as important as the Democrats hope it is,” he said.

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