Democrats Flip the Virginia House, Blocking Governor’s Proposed Abortion Ban

It's an embarrassing loss for Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R), who thought he could market a 15-week abortion ban as a "reasonable limit."

Democrats Flip the Virginia House, Blocking Governor’s Proposed Abortion Ban
Photo:Associated Press (AP)

Democrats in Virginia held the state Senate and flipped the House of Delegates in an election that was widely seen as a referendum on abortion rights. Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) had planned to pursue a 15-week ban if his party took the Senate. But despite spending the last couple of months—and a couple of huge stacks of cash—lying to voters that a 15-week ban isn’t a ban, that path is now effectively cut off.

All 40 seats in the Senate and 100 seats in the House were up for election, but NBC News noted that fewer than a dozen of the 140 seats were actually competitive. Even if Democrats only held the Senate, it would have denied Youngkin the trifecta necessary to pass a ban—but Democrats also regained control of the House. The races were called by Decision Desk. In one key Senate race, Schuyler VanValkenburg (D) beat incumbent state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant (R), an anti-abortion OB/GYN.

Virginia is the last state in the South that hasn’t restricted abortion after the fall of Roe and a Republican legislature would have been devastating for access across the region. Youngkin’s strategy was to refer to the proposed abortion ban as a “reasonable limit,” not a ban, and his PAC spent $1.4 million on ads with that message—even though members of his own party had been calling it a ban for months. It was a tactic pulled directly from the national group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, which has been urging presidential candidates to support a nationwide 15-week ban that it refers to as “a federal minimum standard.”

One Democratic pollster told the Washington Post that trying to frame a proposed abortion ban as “reasonable” is missing the point—voters have been rejecting candidates who seek to legislate the procedure in any way. “Every field experiment on the politics of abortion since the Dobbs decision has shown that the power is almost lopsidedly on the side of reproductive rights supporters,” said Geoff Garin. “Everything I have seen indicates that voters don’t litigate this around particular details,” like at what stage in pregnancy abortion is banned. Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson, who has worked on Virginia races this cycle, was even more blunt. “If the GOP can’t win the [Virginia] state Senate with all of Youngkin’s money, then their problem isn’t about messaging on abortion,” he said. “Their problem is their stance on abortion.”

Youngkin also pulled a few recent stunts like sending out tax rebates in the waning days, and told the Wall Street Journal that voters shouldn’t worry about him signing a ban more restrictive than 15 weeks, because his legislative leaders essentially pinky-promised they wouldn’t send any to his desk. Some GOP donors were urging him to run for president if he flipped the Senate, but there were doubters all along. One anonymous Youngkin adviser told the WSJ that he predicted a statehouse “massacre,” given voters’ views on abortion.

Kaitlin Makuski, SBA’s political director, told the New York Times before the election that if Virginia Republicans won, it would be a clear indication that 2024 candidates should support a 15-week ban like Youngkin did. “He and his team looked back at what they saw in [the midterms in] 2022 and realized we can’t continue burying our head in the sand,” she said of Youngkin.“We need to move forward. This is a great template to follow.”

Maybe it was in theory, but clearly (and thankfully) not in practice.

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