Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin has put a 15-week abortion ban at the center of his campaign to help the GOP take full control of state government — and he has persuaded a broad slate of Republican candidates in the November election to coalesce behind the proposal.
However, a majority of those Republican candidates — many of them running in competitive districts in the two chambers of the Legislature — pushed as recently as this year for far stricter abortion bans than the one Youngkin has proposed, according to research shared exclusively with NBC News by the States Project, a left-leaning group that helps promote Democrats in the legislative races.
The implication is that the legislators could ultimately push for a stricter policy on reproductive rights than the one Youngkin is promising Virginians if he helps Republicans win back control of the state Senate and keep control of the House of Delegates.
Take, for example, John Stirrup, a Republican candidate in a competitive state House district in Northern Virginia, who has said that he supports a “total ban” on abortion and that he felt Youngkin’s 15-week ban was a “starting point,” according to a recording of him May published this summer by The Washington Post.
But at the same time, Stirrup told NBC News, he was willing to line up behind Youngkin's proposal.
“I recognize that there are differing views even inside our own party, but we have an obligation to govern where the majority of Virginians are," he said in a statement. “Governor Youngkin’s efforts have identified that position: a limit on abortions after 15 weeks."
Simone Leiro, a spokesperson for the States Project, said Stirrup is among many candidates in Virginia the group tracks who "aspire to criminalize patients and their providers."
"They aren’t being honest with their voters,” Leiro said.
Republicans hold a three-seat edge in the state House, while Democrats control the Senate by four seats. Abortion rights — one of the leading issues in races across the U.S. in the 2022 midterm elections — is again top of mind for candidates and voters, and it will play a huge role in which party emerges from the Nov. 7 elections with control of the Legislature.
Youngkin, who flipped the state red in his surprise 2021 victory, has injected himself into the legislative races to put the state fully under Republican control. His Spirit of Virginia PAC has spent heavily in competitive races, putting the 15-week abortion proposal at the center of much of its messaging. The plan includes exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the mother, and Republicans are making a bet that it is sufficiently moderate to avoid the backlash that has spiked in other states in response to strict abortion bans.
Virginia is the last state in the broader South with no significant restrictions on abortion. Abortion is legal there through the second trimester of a woman’s pregnancy, with exceptions for the woman’s health during the third trimester.
The research from the States Project, which has spent $4.5 million to help elect Democrats to the Virginia General Assembly this year, found that 16 of the 22 (72%) Republican nominees in competitive and GOP-leaning state Senate districts have said they also support abortion bans stricter than Youngkin’s proposal.
For example, Emily Brewer, a Republican delegate running in a competitive Senate district in the southeastern part of the state, co-sponsored a fetal personhood House bill that proposed criminalizing abortion by making a person who “kills the fetus of another intentionally or accidentally guilty of voluntary manslaughter," signed a pledge to vote "100% pro-life," and said last year that she is "pro-life at the moment of conception."
Tara Durant, a delegate running for the state Senate in a competitive district in Northern Virginia, voted for the fetal personhood bill in the House of Delegates.
And Sen. Dave Suetterlein, who is running in a newly drawn district in the southwestern part of the state, supported a bill in committee that would have banned abortion in the state completely, with limited exceptions, and would have created felony penalties for performing illegal abortions.
Brewer and Suetterlein have also said they would support Youngkin’s 15-week ban, while Durant didn’t respond to questions about whether she would. Abortion-rights advocates said the candidates’ recent support for stricter bans raises questions about whether they’d stick to their positions. Brewer and Suetterlein also didn’t respond to questions.
“Virginia is the last stronghold for reproductive rights in the South and, really, the last opportunity to protect millions of people from another dangerous ban,” said Leiro, the States Project spokesperson.
In a statement, a Youngkin spokesperson dismissed the possibility that Republicans who’d supported stricter abortion policies wouldn’t line up behind his “consensus” position and criticized Democrats for being “extreme" on the issue.
“Virginians elected a pro-life governor, and he supports finding consensus on legislation which would extend protections from Virginia’s current standard to when babies begin to feel pain in the womb at 15-weeks with exceptions,” said the spokesperson, Macaulay Porter.
Meanwhile, 31 of the 54 (57%) Republican nominees in competitive and GOP-leaning state House districts have said recently that they support an abortion ban stricter than Youngkin’s proposed 15-week ban, according to the group’s analysis.
In addition to Stirrup, they include Kim Taylor, a delegate running for a competitive seat south of Richmond, who voted for a 2023 bill in the House of Delegates that would create felony penalties for doctors who don’t take certain steps in rare cases when abortion care results in live births.
Taylor didn’t respond to questions about her views on abortion and whether she supported Youngkin’s proposal.
Leiro of the States Project argued that it will be legislators like Taylor and Stirrup, if they were to win, who would wield power regarding the specifics of a bill about abortion.
If Republicans “successfully take both chambers in November, it’s those lawmakers who will be writing the bills,” she said. “Not Youngkin.”
CORRECTION (Oct. 16, 2023, 1:50 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated Virginia state Del. Emily Brewer’s legislative record. She was not among the sponsors of H.B. 1395, which proposed a total ban on abortion in Virginia.