Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin and his political team are devoting significant resources to gaining Republican control of the General Assembly this fall, hoping to enact a conservative agenda that would include passing new abortion legislation, according to several sources familiar with the governor’s plans.
Virginia is the last state in the South without significant restrictions on abortion rights, and advocates see it as the next big battleground on the issue.
Passing a ban on abortion after 15 weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest and saving the life of the mother, would be a legislative priority for Youngkin if his party succeeds in the November legislative elections, the sources familiar with his plans said. The governor and his campaign team believe that 15 weeks is a “consensus” limit — one that many Virginians across political ideologies can agree upon. And they’re betting the measure is modest enough to avoid spikes in Democratic turnout more stringent bans have triggered in other states.
Their view is informed by the all-women focus groups they conducted on abortion throughout the summer as part of GOP efforts to hold the Virginia House and win the Senate, NBC News has learned. Zack Roday, the coordinated campaigns director, for Youngkin's state PAC Spirit of Virginia, said the women's views on abortion were "complicated" and "nuanced." But, he said, "15 weeks with exceptions, is a place where a lot of people start nodding their head."
Youngkin is eyeing new abortion limitations as elected Democrats in the commonwealth sound the alarm that the national party isn't doing enough to prevent the Republican governor and his allies from winning the state Senate — or from keeping their hold on the House of Delegates.
Some Republicans in the state don’t view abortion, and especially a 15-week ban, as an issue that will drive voters to the polls or give Democrats an edge as it has in other recent elections.
In a Spirit of Virginia briefing with reporters this summer, where Youngkin’s political team laid out its priorities for November, cost of living, safety and education were mentioned as the three issues they believe voters care most about.
Abortion was not on that list. In fact, the topic didn’t even come up until a reporter asked about it.
“I don’t think it’s the priority,” said Republican state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, a practicing OB-GYN. “I think that Democrats want to make it a priority.”
Dunnavant, who is in a tough re-election fight, agreed with Youngkin's camp that 15 weeks seemed just about right. “It’s compassionate, and it’s consensus,” she said. “Fifteen weeks gives ample opportunity.”
According to a recent Gallup survey, nearly 70% of Americans believe abortion should be legal during the first three months of pregnancy. And there's some evidence that Republican voters might be as satisfied with a 15-week restriction on the procedure as they are with more stringent bans that have turned off independent and Democratic voters. A recent NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll of Iowa Republicans found close to the same percentage supported the state's six-week abortion ban (60% said it gets the issue "about right") as those who said they were “more likely” (54%) to support a hypothetical candidate who backed a 15-week ban.
Virginia allows abortions up to 26 weeks and six days of pregnancy — through the first two trimesters — with exceptions in the third trimester if three physicians find that the woman’s health is at risk. Earlier this year, Democrats, who control the state Senate, prevented several pieces of abortion-related legislation from moving forward, including one that would have limited abortion after 15 weeks.
Democrats are betting that any new threats to abortion rights will help them in November. State House Democrats last week launched a series of digital ads highlighting abortion restrictions in other states since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade and warned voters that Virginia could “be next” if Republicans gained a majority in the state legislature this year. Republicans, for their part, have fired back with an ad first shared with NBC News that paints Democrats as extreme on abortion.
“They want to continue to downplay and dismiss women’s rights and abortion rights, like women don’t have a voice,” Democratic state Sen. Aaron Rouse, focus on abortion rights helped him win a special election in the Virginia Beach area this year, said of Republicans. “Women have been very loud and clear in the state of Virginia: Don’t touch my rights, my freedom, when it comes to making a really tough health care decision.”