Following the Supreme Court’s decision last year to eliminate the federally protected right to an abortion, many of the most astute Republican strategists murmured, rather ominously, that their colleagues had traded in their iconic symbol for a different, more appropriate zoo animal: an ostrich rather than an elephant. On one of their flagship topics, Republicans across the board were doing their hardest to pretend that their side hadn’t just scored the largest triumph in a generation.
In a series of message memos distributed last year, several of the party’s most astute pollsters urged candidates to concentrate on the economy and inflation, areas where the GOP had a chance, particularly with those who did not strongly connect with either party. The Republican National Committee informed candidates and campaigns last September that “Democrats and the national media are determined to try and make abortion the top issue ahead of the midterms; however, the media is not on our side, and we do not answer to them but to voters.” In last year’s exit surveys, abortion was the most important issue for 27% of all voters, ranking second only to inflation and surpassing immigration, crime, and gun laws by a 2-to-1 margin. Therefore, no, it wasn’t only the media examining the positions of the candidates.)
In other words, Republicans are aware that abortion has become a non-issue and have turned it into a problem since Roe’s national protection was removed. It was one thing to declare that a major turning point in the culture wars would be achieved. It was an entirely different story to witness state lawmakers swiftly outlaw or restrict abortion in twenty-one states so far. It was pink at best, not the red wave that was forecast for last year. Since Dobbs, abortion rights have won in all seven states when they were placed directly on the ballot. Not all of them are California-style states, either; anti-abortion rights organizations have been rejected in Kansas, Montana, and Kentucky. This is so important that local campaigns are affected—just ask Lincoln, Nebraska’s mayor.
And that leads us to Virginia, where early voting began on September 22. In the D.C. television market that covers Northern Virginia, campaign commercials may be seen almost every commercial break. This is the first election in which voters will have the opportunity to amend the Senate and the House of Delegates since 2019 and 2021, respectively, out of the 140 seats in the Virginia legislature. Republicans in Virginia believe they have figured out how to discuss abortion and win elections, while national Republicans are attempting to keep the discourse focused on fiscal concerns and Joe Biden’s extreme unpopularity.
Glenn Youngkin has persuaded his group of Republican rivals to align themselves with his concept of outlawing abortions beyond 15 weeks, with the exception of rape, incest, and motherhood. He has spent almost $1 million on advertisements to inform people about his intentions.
The only state in the South, Virginia, that has not restricted access to abortion by utilizing the Dobbs latitude is that state. Democrats’ razor-thin 22–18 Senate majority is the only reason for their inaction. (In the Lower Chamber, Democrats are outnumbered 46–48.) The state legislative elections next week will be off-year events, as they traditionally are in Virginia, with lower voter turnout than even-year federal campaigns. Therefore, after a rough first at-bat following Dobbs, even a small number of voters in swing districts might determine whether Youngkin’s vision is viewed as a model for a GOP resurgence.
Abortion is persistently more popular than some conservatives would have us believe, according to polling data. According to the Pew Research Center, 54% of Americans believe that access to abortion care should be simple. According to the same survey, 62% of Americans believe that surgery should be allowed in all or most situations. Further, things deteriorate for Republicans. Americans believe that medical abortion should be permitted in their state by a ratio greater than two to one.
To be sure, Youngkin’s plan has not won over all Virginia Republicans.
Republicans have spent slightly less than $600,000 on abortion-related advertisements, per a Washington Post investigation. That amount is at least $4.5 million among Democrats. Ad spending on crime is far higher in Republican ad agencies than on abortion.
Still, politicians from all around the country are taking a keen interest in Virginia’s renewed push for abortion rights. More than Youngkin’s personal political success—nobody believes that the Richmond Governor’s Mansion is his ultimate objective—the pivot on reproductive rights is already being put to the test in well-known Senate contests. The argument is that since abortion and the deadlines for getting an abortion are unavoidable, these candidates would be better served softening their stances and appeasing their Washington-based advisors and backers.
And there are grounds to believe that this might genuinely succeed for the data-driven nerds who approach campaigns like Moneyball: According to a Gallup poll, 69% of Americans approve of abortion in the first trimester, but that number drops to 37% in the second—exactly around the 15-week mark. Youngkin’s political arm convened a focus group comprising female swing voters aged 30 and above to discuss strategies for marketing the 15-week restriction, which might be a crucial factor in next week’s elections.
Undoubtedly, there’s a good reason why the majority of proponents of abortion rights would rather see Roe incorporated into federal law.
Reporters and activists across the nation have not had to search far to discover an endless supply of accounts of women (and occasionally girls) in states enacting new abortion restrictions who were either denied access to abortion exceptions for urgent medical needs or did not have the resources or chance to demonstrate that their pregnancy was the consequence of rape or incest.
Many voters could be unable to support a politician who supports a fresh ban of any kind, even if it is only for 15 weeks with some exceptions, because of the agonizing details in some of those stories. Or the reason why a portion of the GOP base is uncomfortable with their candidates discussing the topic excessively.
Exhibit A would be the presidential contest, in which supporters of Florida Governor Ron DeSantis expressed both admiration and concern over his decision to sign a law prohibiting abortion care beyond six weeks.
Next Tuesday in Virginia, if Youngkin does better than anticipated, he will have presented a blueprint that other Republicans can use. Additionally, he might cause a stir on Capitol Hill by providing Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina with proof that his colleagues shouldn’t be afraid of his plan to outlaw abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Republicans might feel at last at ease giving up their ostrich postures and returning to being elephants, or at the very least RINOs.