RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Republicans stepped up their criticism this week of the rhetoric being used by their Democratic opponents in abortion-focused messaging in this year’s critical legislative elections.
A recent flurry of Democratic-sponsored ads and mailers in battleground districts expected to determine political control of the General Assembly have warned that Republicans would use a newfound legislative majority to ban abortion, including in cases where the pregnancy resulted from rape or a mother’s life was at risk. Virginia, currently under divided political control, now allows elective abortions in the first and second trimesters and is the only Southern state that has not implemented new restrictions since the end of Roe v. Wade.
In their messaging, Democrats have cited recent strict bans enacted in other GOP-led states, along with Republican candidates’ legislative records, past public statements and news articles, to bolster their claims. Republicans, who are largely campaigning on GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s proposed ban on abortions after 15 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, say their opponents are misrepresenting those sources or candidates’ past statements in an exploitative effort to drive turnout.
“With no vision to offer the Commonwealth in this election and nothing to inspire Virginians to vote for their extreme candidates, Virginia Democrats are reverting to their tired tactics of overt falsehoods and flagrant fearmongering,” Youngkin’s political action committee said in a news release Tuesday.
Every General Assembly seat is on the ballot this year, with early voting already underway, in an election cycle that will determine partisan control of the House of Delegates, now GOP-led, and the Democratic-controlled Senate. Virginia’s narrow political divide and unusual off-year schedule mean the contests typically draw outsized national attention and are often viewed as a possible bellwether for the coming year’s federal elections.
Republican staffers and campaign operatives in Virginia have been arguing for weeks that Democrats are overreaching or outright lying in their messaging. But the conversation escalated Tuesday after Joel Griffin, the Democratic nominee in a competitive Fredericksburg-area Senate race, publicized a new ad criticizing his Republican opponent, Tara Durant.
“Tara Durant supports letting Virginia ban abortions with no exceptions. … She supports letting Virginia force a 10-year-old rape victim carry to term,” female speakers warned in the video.
Included as citations for both statements was a 2022 Facebook post from Durant praising the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
Durant, a current member of the state House who has said she backs the governor’s 15-week proposal, responded by saying Griffin had “crossed a line” with the new ad.
The ad “smears Tara Durant — a mother of two young women — as wanting to force a 10-year-old victim of rape to carry a child. Such an unnerving, unfounded charge warrants nothing but clear-cut condemnation,” her campaign said in a statement.
Griffin then responded in part by pointing out a flier from Durant’s competitive primary that called Durant “a proven champion for the unborn” and “100% pro-life.”
Republicans are suddenly moderating their rhetoric and long-standing opposition to abortion access at the advice of pollsters, House Democratic Leader Don Scott argued in an interview Wednesday. Anti-abortion groups have seen a string of losses in statewide ballot fights since the U.S. Supreme Court ended constitutional protections for abortion last year.
Scott and other Democrats also say they are skeptical that a Republican majority would not seek to go further than Youngkin’s 15-week proposal — which would still accommodate most abortions, according to the latest available federal data. They frequently invoke The Washington Post’s reporting last year that Youngkin told a conservative audience he would “happily and gleefully” sign “any bill … to protect life.”
Youngkin’s press office did not directly answer questions Wednesday from The Associated Press about whether the governor would sign a stricter ban, or legislation that did not contain exceptions, though spokeswoman Macaulay Porter reiterated Youngkin’s support for the 15-week legislation.
House Speaker Todd Gilbert said he did not believe a measure more restrictive than the governor’s current proposal could clear the Legislature.
“Let’s use me as an example. I am no less a pro-life member of the Legislature than I’ve ever been. But I understand that that’s not where the majority of Virginians are on this issue,” he said in an interview, calling the governor’s proposal an attempt to find consensus.
He added that if Republicans retain their House majority, “there will be no deviating” from the campaign platform. Democrats in recent years have shown they are the extremists on the issue, Gilbert said, both for their support for the removal of limits on abortion later in pregnancy and their advocacy for a proposal that called for enshrining “a fundamental right to reproductive freedom” in the state constitution.
In other swing districts around the state, debates like the Griffin-Durant exchange have also played out.
In a competitive suburban Richmond state Senate race, Democratic nominee Schuyler VanValkenburg’s campaign ran an ad featuring a woman who said his Republican opponent, Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant “wants to ban abortion, take away a woman’s choice.”
Dunnavant, a practicing OB-GYN, carried legislation this session that would have added limits on third-trimester abortions and has since said she supports legal abortion through 15 weeks and afterward only in cases of rape, incest, to save the mother’s life and in cases of severe fetal anomalies.
“I don’t support an abortion ban. Period,” Dunnavant said in an ad that aired soon after.