With major national and statewide elections still a year away, all eyes have turned to Virginia, where this upcoming Tuesday’s legislative elections could determine the political future of the state, and conjure an omen for 2024. At the moment, power is divided: Republicans narrowly control the state House, while Democrats have a bare grasp on the Senate. This has set up a contest with high stakes, in which a few swing races could determine whether Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin is empowered to pursue a more conservative agenda.
The specter of 2021 looms over the upcoming elections. That year saw unprecedented voter turnout, which in the end added up to Youngkin besting his Democratic rival Terry McAuliffe, who was seeking a second turn in the statehouse. Statewide Democrats grumbled that the national party had not paid sufficient attention to Virginia in the lead-up to that election. This year, Democrats are working overtime to juice turnout in an effort to stave off a repeat of that outcome.
“The supercharged Republican turnout was what defeated the Democratic campaign in 2021, and that’s the worry that Democrats have this year,” Mark Rozell, the dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. A Washington Post-Schar School poll released last month found that 71 percent of registered voters say they will definitely vote, and another 7 percent have already cast their ballots. (Still, early voting this year trails 2021 levels.)
“Turnout is absolutely critical given how closely competitive several of the races are in each of the legislative chambers,” Rozell continued. “Everybody’s on edge in Virginia regarding what is likely to happen, and everyone who is committed to following this process understands that it could come down to a single race in either chamber.”
Heather Williams, the interim president of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, called Virginia the “cornerstone” of the 2023 elections, in part because the results will demonstrate how voters are thinking about major issues such as abortion. It is also significant because all 140 seats in the Virginia legislature are open this year due to redistricting.
The national interest in the Virginia elections is evident in the unprecedented amounts of money flowing into the state. In the month of October alone, Virginia legislative candidates raised $46 million. According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, Democratic candidates outraised their counterparts for races in both the state House and Senate. Preelection fundraising this year far outpaces the previous off-year legislative election in 2019. In the few competitive state Senate districts, candidates have raised roughly $2 million each—numbers that are more in line with congressional races than state legislative ones.
“We’ve been shouting from the rooftops for years about how important these races are, and how critical they are to make progress in this country, and how impactful this ballot level is and state legislators are on people’s everyday life,” Williams told me. “But I would also say broadly that attention at this level has increased and it is impactful, but it still needs more.”
But Republicans have also been fundraising at a steady clip, with Youngkin’s political action committee, Spirit of Virginia, pouring money into several competitive races. One of the greatest beneficiaries of Spirit of Virginia’s largesse is state Senator Siobhan Dunnavant, who is locked in a competitive race in the Richmond area, and has received nearly $1 million from Youngkin’s PAC.
Like many other Republicans, Democrats believe Dunnavant, an ob-gyn, is particularly vulnerable on the issue of abortion. In the waning days before the election, Democratic candidates across the state have emphasized their support for abortion rights. With narrow control of the state Senate, Democrats have formed a “blue wall” against any efforts by Youngkin to limit the procedure, and warn that a Republican-controlled legislature would be a rubber stamp for his agenda. The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia is making a significant investment in the state ahead of the election, spending roughly $1 million to highlight candidates’ positions on abortion in several competitive races.
Meanwhile, Virginia Republicans have embraced Youngkin’s plan to ban the procedure after 15 weeks of pregnancy, with Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC pouring $1.4 million into a TV ad campaign insisting “there is no ban.” Instead, Republicans characterize Democrats as having the more extreme position on abortion.
Democrats scoff at the efforts to turn a “ban” into a “limit,” and point to the governor’s pledge to a conservative audience last year that he would “happily and gleefully” sign any bill “to protect life.” In the wake of last year’s Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade, Virginia is the sole remaining state in the South that does not severely restrict access to abortion.
“My district and my race will likely be the deciding vote to protect or to ban abortion in the Virginia state Senate,” said Russet Perry, the Democratic candidate in a competitive district in northern Virginia, in a press call with abortion rights advocacy groups on Thursday.
Voters are split on Youngkin’s proposed 15-week ban, with the Washington Post-Schar School poll showing that 46 percent of Virginians support the idea, as compared to 47 percent opposing it. That survey also showed that 60 percent of voters believe abortion is “very important” to their vote this year, a dramatic increase from 2019. Amy Laufer, a Democratic candidate for a district surrounding Charlottesville, argued in the press call with Perry that her primary race had seen relatively high turnout in part because of her emphasis on protecting abortion rights.
“As I’m talking to voters even this week, I’m hearing that men and women in my district overwhelmingly want this right to be protected,” Laufer said. “And the one clear consensus is that politicians think they have the right to decide if, when, or how women access health care. Virginia voters won’t support that.”
National Republicans and Democrats alike are watching the Virginia elections closely to see whether GOP messaging on a 15-week abortion ban will be seen by voters as extreme or reasonable. The results could also determine the political future of Youngkin, who is still mulling a long shot presidential bid.
“No one mistakes the fact that he has national political ambitions and whether he can pull off what he set out to do—get Republican majorities—will have a big impact on his stature outside of Virginia,” Rozell said.
While abortion may particularly juice turnout among Democrats, other issues could be more important to the wider universe of voters. The Post-Schar poll found that voters overall consider abortion to be the fifth-most important issue to consider when casting their ballot, behind education, the economy, crime and safety, and gun policy. When Youngkin sailed to victory in 2021, it was due in part to his emphasis on “parent’s rights,” capitalizing on dissatisfaction with school closure policy during the Covid-19 pandemic. Youngkin has trotted out this language again this year when campaigning for Republican candidates, focusing on “parents matter” phrasing.
Nonetheless, Democrats believe they can use the framework of abortion rights to address other issues, emphasizing individual freedoms. Moreover, topics like abortion, gun control, and education are “front and center” in these elections, Williams said, but the elections are also “deeply rooted in communities.” When knocking on doors, candidates are able to talk about their position on overarching issues, as well as on local concerns.
“It is an election that has a theme to it, right? It’s about loving your communities and protecting our fundamental freedoms,” Williams said. “But there’s a lot of room underneath that to have really dynamic conversations with voters about the things that are on their mind, and about the things that they’re concerned about.”