Virginia, with its two Democratic senators and recent tendency to swing blue in the Electoral College, might have gone overlooked as a battleground state in recent years. But the election of Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin in 2021 upended what national observers saw as a stable status quo in the Old Dominion. The commonwealth is still politically competitive—and the crucial legislative elections in November have high-stakes implications.
Should Republicans hang onto their majority in the state House and flip the state Senate, odds are good that Youngkin would be emboldened to enact a more conservative agenda, potentially including new restrictions on abortion in one of the last bastions for access to reproductive care in the South.
“The Senate blue brick wall was the only thing that stopped us [in] the last two years from banning abortion in Virginia,” said Susan Swecker, the chair of the Virginia Democratic Party. “We cannot turn the whole state government over to the MAGA party.”
In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, Virginia remains the only state in the South that allows abortion procedures through the beginning of the third trimester. Republicans have largely shied away from the issue on the campaign trail, preferring to focus on issues such as education, the economy, and crime. Virginia has a large budget surplus, and Youngkin and GOP legislators have proposed dedicating that money to new tax cuts. Many Republican candidates do not even refer to abortion on their campaign websites.
“[Republicans] have a lot of political positives they can be playing, but they get off their strength if they talk about the hot-button social and cultural issues, where most Virginia voters are not in alignment with the Republican positions, especially abortion,” said Mark Rozell, the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University.
Youngkin has indicated that he would support restricting access to abortion should Republicans gain control of the state legislature. Having frequently referred to himself as a “pro-life governor,” Youngkin supported the 15-week ban on the procedure that Republicans unsuccessfully attempted to pass this year.
Views on abortion among Virginians are somewhat muddled: An April Washington Post-Schar School poll found that the majority of Virginians oppose tightening abortion restrictions, but 49 percent said they would support a 15-week ban with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life of the mother. Even so, 45 percent of respondents disapproved of how Youngkin handled the issue.
But Youngkin has also publicly proclaimed that he would be willing to go much further than a 15-week ban. “Any bill that comes to my desk I will sign happily and gleefully in order to protect life,” Youngkin said last June. Meanwhile, state Democrats have kicked off a turnout operation “to warn voters of what’s at stake if MAGA extremists take full control of Richmond, including the very real threat of an abortion ban.”
Much as national Democrats have increasingly characterized Republicans as extreme, the party in Virginia has attempted to tie its GOP counterparts to former President Donald Trump. In the 2021 election, that effort yielded mixed results: A motivated base gave Democratic nominee Terry McAuliffe more votes than his predecessor, Ralph Northam, but Youngkin largely managed to evade the implication that he was following in Trump’s footsteps—and any hopes that Trump fatigue might depress Republican turnout were very quickly dashed. It is perhaps no surprise that Democrats still bristle at Youngkin’s characterization of himself as an affable dad in a red vest, pointing to his support for multiple far-right candidates in the 2022 midterms as evidence that he is firmly ensconced in the Trumpian wing of the party.
Swecker acknowledged that, while Trump is still in the news, he does not necessarily present an easy foil for Democratic candidates running in state elections. “To be perfectly candid, we realize we won some elections based on the blowback of Donald Trump being president. Those were different times,” Swecker said.
But Democrats aren’t the only ones with their political future on the line: The stakes are particularly significant for Youngkin, whose status as a rising star in the Republican Party will be cemented or weakened by the outcome of these elections. As governors of Virginia are limited to one term, Youngkin has just two years left to enact the lingering priorities on his agenda.
Youngkin’s 2021 victory catapulted him to national prominence, stirring chatter among political observers that he could someday cut an imposing, red-vest-wearing figure as a potential Republican presidential candidate. Although Youngkin has thus far declined to run for president in 2024, the outcome of the 2023 legislative elections could influence his political fortunes. If Republicans gain unified control of the state legislature and governor’s mansion, it would demonstrate to Virginians and national observers alike that Youngkin’s 2021 victory was not a one-time fluke, spurred by voter dissatisfaction amid the coronavirus pandemic.
“He’s putting a lot of his political capital on the line. He’s going to look much bigger than he is now if he gets total control of the state legislature. But step number two, of course, is what he does with it,” said Rozell. “And what he does with it is, he pushes Republican agenda items that resonate with the public, and secures his stature as the one who turned blue Virginia red.”
Republicans currently hold a two-seat majority in the state House, while Democrats enjoy the same margin in the state Senate. With Youngkin as their standard-bearer, Republicans are bullish that they can flip the upper chamber—bolstered in part by the governor’s super PAC, Spirit of Virginia. The governor’s political juice was evidenced in part by the victory of his preferred candidates in several contests in the June primary.
While it is perhaps the greatest motivator for their base, abortion is not the only issue Democrats are focused on this fall; the party also argues it is the only bulwark against potential Republican actions on issues such as education, the environment, and gun control. Swecker also highlighted voting rights as a topic of particular importance, chastising Youngkin for pulling Virginia out of a nonpartisan, interstate partnership to share voter information.
Meanwhile, Republicans make a similar argument about state Senate Democrats’ recalcitrance, albeit from a different perspective. David Rexrode, a senior adviser to Youngkin and the chairman of the Spirit of Virginia PAC, said in a statement that “Democrats in control of the Senate have stood in the way of commonsense policies like punishing fentanyl dealers, protecting kids on social media, and preventing California from dictating what kind of cars Virginians can buy.” Virginia Senate Democrats voted down Youngkin-backed legislation to allow prosecutors to charge drug dealers with second-degree murder for overdose deaths; rejected a proposal to require minors to receive parental approval for social media use; and defeated a bill to roll back state law requiring Virginia follow emissions standards set by California.
“We need to elect serious leaders who will move our commonsense agenda forward. Governor Youngkin is devoting his time, energy, and resources to these races to ensure our candidates have the best possible chance of winning this November,” Rexrode continued.
The state is a microcosm of the country, as most regions have distinct partisan leanings, with only a few areas that are actually politically competitive: According to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, only four of the 40 state Senate seats are toss-ups. The Virginia legislative elections were further upended by the most recent round of redistricting, which created entirely new districts for all 140 seats, resulting in a wave of retirements and primary challenges. But even though 2023 is considered by pundits to be an “off- off-” year election—that is, neither occurring in a presidential nor a midterm election year—the stakes may be significant enough to precipitate greater voter turnout.
“The consequences of this one are so high that there’s a potential that voters are going to engage in this one in a way that we haven’t seen [before] in state legislative elections,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist who has previously worked on campaigns in Virginia.
Virginia’s unusually lax campaign finance laws may also play a role in the upcoming elections. The state does not have a limit for who can contribute to political action committees and how much they can give. Although Virginia requires disclosure of donors, potential donors can evade that requirement by contributing funds through a limited liability corporation; in May, Youngkin’s PAC received $1 million from an LLC that had been incorporated the day before, The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported. In the second quarter of the year, Spirit of Virginia raised more than $5.9 million, closing out June with roughly $6.2 million in cash on hand.
“Glenn Youngkin has a boatload of money, and the way that Virginia’s campaign finance laws work, there is no barrier to him dumping boatloads of that money into Republican state legislative campaigns,” said Carolyn Fiddler, a left-leaning state elections expert. “[State] Democrats are going to get outspent unless some big national Democrats step up and try to narrow that funding gap a bit.”
Still, state Democrats argue that fundraising isn’t everything. As Swecker argued, all the money in the world won’t convince Virginians to live in a state with greater abortion restrictions or more lax gun safety laws. “We understand what the stakes are, and we know that we might not have as much money as the MAGA Republicans have, but we are confident that we have the ground game and the issues on our side,” Swecker said.