Virginia Republicans bet their fate on a strategy that they hoped would neutralize abortion rights and warnings from Democrats: Embrace a 15-week abortion ban with some exceptions and convince voters such a measure is a “common sense,” consensus limit.
Republicans and anti-abortion advocates across the country were eager for what they saw as a “a road map for how to tackle abortion, not only at the state level, but the federal level as well,” Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America President Marjorie Dannenfelser said before the election.
But by Wednesday morning, their enthusiasm had been dampened. Republicans’ stunning flop in Virginia suggests that even a 15-week ban — compared with the total bans many GOP-run states have adopted — may turn off a broad coalition of voters who are wary of government restrictions on the procedure. Heading into 2024, coalescing around abortion restrictions at that point in pregnancy may not insulate the party from an issue that has become its Achilles heel.
“What they are talking about is a ban, and voters have said resoundingly they do not want a ban on abortion,” said Molly Murphy, a pollster and president at the Democrat-aligned firm Impact Research. “This is much less about where you draw the line on when a woman can have an abortion and much more about who gets to decide. The number of weeks is immaterial, because it’s still fundamentally politicians deciding whether a woman should have an abortion.”
Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin campaigned aggressively for his party to take control of Virginia’s legislature — and promised that, given Republican majorities, he would enact a law banning abortion in the state after 15 weeks of pregnancy with exceptions for rape, incest and to protect the life of the pregnant patient. In a TV ad that blanketed the state’s most competitive regions for weeks, Republicans took the issue head on and framed Youngkin’s proposal as a middle-of-the-road approach most Virignians could get behind.
Their campaign strategy was based on polling and focus groups suggesting that swing voters supported or were not turned off by such a ban. State party leaders urged every Republican candidate on the ballot to back the measure — or at least keep quiet on support for stricter restrictions.
It was the most prominent endorsement of abortion restrictions by Republican candidates since the Supreme Court’s June 2022 decision that ended Roe v. Wade, a departure from the more common approach of demurring on the issue.
Republican operatives and anti-abortion activists argued that Republicans’ heavy losses in the 2022 midterms stemmed from ignoring abortion. Instead, some suggested, overtly campaigning on a 15-week cutoff could offer a path to victory on an issue on which voters largely say they are more likely to trust Democrats.
While anti-abortion advocates cheered the embrace of a 15-week ban, they have also stated that it’s a starting point. Dannenfelser of SBA Pro-Life America has been clear that anti-abortion advocates support restrictions much earlier in pregnancy.
The national implications of Virginia’s elections will reverberate all the way up to the presidential race, where anti-abortion groups have been engaged in an active campaign to align candidates behind a 15-week federal abortion ban. Even following Tuesday’s election, Dannenfelser continued to argue that Republicans should campaign explicitly on abortion restrictions.
“The true lesson from last night’s loss is that Democrats are going to make abortion front and center throughout 2024 campaigns,” she said in a statement. “The GOP consultant class needs to wake up. Candidates must put money and messaging toward countering the Democrats’ attacks or they will lose every time.”
Former President Donald Trump, the frontrunner in the GOP presidential primary, has not embraced a 15-week federal abortion ban, but has not ruled one out either. “It could be state or it could be federal, I don’t frankly care,” Trump said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in September. “I’m going to come together with all groups, and we’re going to have something that’s acceptable.”
Ron DeSantis, the governor of Florida, said recently he would sign such a ban after skirting the issue for months. And former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, while calling a federal 15-week ban “unrealistic,” has urged politicians to search for what she calls a “consensus” approach, a stance that includes banning abortions later in pregnancy, though she hasn’t said what precisely that means. (SBA Pro-Life America told The 19th and other outlets in April that Haley had privately committed to a 15-week limit. Her campaign refuted that.)
If Republicans had emerged victorious in Virginia, some pundits suggested, it could have offered a guide for the GOP on how to openly talk about abortion. Public opinion data suggests that Americans are far more likely to favor abortion protections in the first trimester of pregnancy — a period that ends around 12 weeks — than in the second. Even in Virginia, polling just weeks out from the election showed 46 percent of voters were in favor of Youngkin’s plan, and 47 percent were opposed to it.
Angela Vasquez-Giroux, who leads research at Reproductive Freedom for All, said two rounds of voter focus groups showed voters are becoming more wary of the idea of exceptions and understand most Republicans are after stricter laws.
“Where it looks under some very lab-quantified conditions that voters might be amenable to this, I think last night proved pretty clearly that they’re not amenable to it at all,” Vasquez-Giroux said.
Tuesday’s GOP losses indicate that, more than a year after Roe’s fall, abortion remains a potent mobilizing force for voters and that large shares continue to reject efforts to pass new restrictions. That animus, the Virginia results suggest, could also translate into voters rejecting lawmakers who endorse such policies.
Still, Murphy said the impact could be more noticeable in states such as Virginia or Arizona that are not as reliably dominated by a single political party.
One issue, the Virginia results suggest, is that voters appear skeptical that lawmakers who oppose abortion will in fact stay at a 15-week ban. Virginia Democrats argued that Republican candidates would, if elected, eventually push for more stringent restrictions, pointing to numerous candidates who had previously endorsed tighter abortion cutoffs.
Tara Gibson, the executive director of Roe Your Vote Virginia, a group that fundraised for Democratic candidates backing abortion rights, said that Democrats were unified on the message that “a ban is a ban, period, whether it be 20 weeks, 15 weeks, six weeks, nothing.”
In a suburban precinct west of Richmond, Mimi, a 33-year-old voter who came to vote with her toddler, said she is not often engaged in politics but was driven to vote by abortion rights. “I just don’t feel that the government should be involved at all,” she said, declining to share her last name. “It’s not my call. It’s not Gov. Youngkin’s call.”
Carlos Alvarez, 63, who also voted against Republicans on the ballot in Henrico County, said he saw Youngkin’s embrace of a 15-week ban as an effort to “make himself more palatable.” Asked if he could get behind restricting abortions at 15 weeks, Alvarez said, “possibly, but I don’t trust that will be the limit.”
That would have followed a pattern in other states. Lawmakers in Florida, passed a 15-week ban in 2022, with DeSantis suggesting that law would offer a moderate path that was suited to Floridian voters. But the state then enacted a six-week cutoff earlier this year, though that law has not yet taken effect. And in North Carolina, where state Republicans pushed a 12-week ban through this spring, Republican leadership has expressed interest in enacting tighter restrictions in the coming years.
Even voters who backed the GOP didn’t necessarily believe the party would stop at 15-week ban. Mimi Bennett, 76, a longtime Republican, said her support for the party is based on concerns about morality. Asked about Youngkin’s proposal, Bennett shrugged, saying, “15 weeks is barely the top of what it should be.” She hoped Republicans would consider going further.
Polling from last month suggested that abortion remained a major priority for Virginia voters, though Democrats and women were far more likely to focus on the issue. The same polling found that only 24 percent of Virginians wanted the state to pass more stringent abortion restrictions.
Still, it’s too early to say how influential this issue will be in the presidential contest. Recent polling from both The New York Times and CNN suggested that voters’ frustration with the economy — and in particular the impact of inflation — could still lead voters to prefer Trump. The New York Times poll found increased voter skepticism of President Joe Biden when it comes to the economy, though they do trust him more on abortion, specifically.
“Post-Election Day quarterbacking is saying, ‘Oh, abortion is still motivating voters. That means maybe Biden isn’t in as bad shape as all these polls have come out have said,’” said Ashley Kirzinger, a pollster at KFF, a nonpartisan health policy research organization. “But the truth is, many Trump voters think abortion should be legal, and they still say they’re going to vote for Trump.”
Outside of purple-state Virginia, abortion rights supporters claimed victory in deep-red Ohio, where voters passed a constitutional amendment to enshrine abortion rights, making it the first Republican-leaning state to pass an affirmative abortion protection. In Kentucky, voters reelected Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who campaigned in part by highlighting his opponent Daniel Cameron’s record of supporting abortion restrictions.