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Virginia's legislative races could change abortion policy and offer 2024 clues: What to know

Both parties see the election as critical.

November 6, 2023, 1:34 PM

Tuesday is Election Day in Virginia and both parties see it as critical -- not just for gaining legislative power but as indicators of where the public stands on abortion access, the economy, education and more.

Every seat in both the state House of Delegates and state Senate is up for grabs and the outcome could also shape the political future of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who is being eyed by some prominent party donors as a potential late entry in the 2024 presidential race, a possibility Youngkin has played down while calling it "humbling."

Here's what to know about Virginia's General Assembly races:

Virginia is next battleground for abortion rights

Virginia is an abortion battleground this year as the southern-most state that hasn't widely banned or restricted abortion since the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in 2022.

Current state law bans access after 26 weeks of pregnancy. Because the Legislature is divided between the Republican-led House of Delegates and the Democratic Senate, Youngkin has been unable to advance changes to abortion access.

Republican candidates have said they are backing his proposed 15-week "limit" on the procedure, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother. The GOP hopes the approach, which they view as a compromise, will win over moderate voters.

Youngkin previously supported a bill to ban abortion after 15 weeks but it was rejected by a state Senate panel in January.

Democrats say they doubt Republicans will stop at 15 weeks if they win control of the General Assembly. The party has been campaigning heavily on the issue, hoping it will energize voters and tip the scales their way, as exit polling showed has happened in other parts of the country, like Michigan.

"The greatest motivator for Democrats is denying Gov. Youngkin control of the Senate, because if Republicans take control of the chamber and hold the House of Delegates, there will be no roadblocks to the governor's plan to install a ban on elective abortions starting 15 weeks after conception," Dr. Chapman Rackaway, a professor and chair of political science at Radford University, told ABC News. "Democrats would be able to block that policy as long as they have control of one chamber of the Legislature."

Youngkin's role in the elections

The governor has been a major presence in the campaigns -- raising and spending money for candidates and pushing for higher turnout.

Over the summer, he launched a "Secure Your Vote" initiative aimed at encouraging Republicans to register for absentee ballots and vote early -- though former President Donald Trump has spent years campaigning against mail voting, baselessly suggesting it is vulnerable to widespread fraud.

Youngkin has also drawn in millions of dollars to his Spirit of Virginia political action committee, which is supporting various GOP candidates in Tuesday's election.

Youngkin first won the governorship in what was seen as something of an upset in 2021 and he has since built an increasingly national profile. In an appearance on ABC's "This Week" on Sunday, anchor George Stephanopoulos asked if he had ruled out joining the 2024 presidential race -- especially in light of GOP front-runner Donald Trump's unpopularity in general election polls. Youngkin said the idea was "humbling" but he "continues to be very focused on Virginia."

"That's where my attention will continue to be," he said.

PHOTO: Candidate signs are seen at the Spotsylvania county early voting site in Fredericksburg, Va., Oct. 26, 2023.
Candidate signs are seen at the Spotsylvania county early voting site in Fredericksburg, Va., Oct. 26, 2023.
Sait Serkan Gurbuz/AP

GOP donors including billionaires Thomas Petterfly and Jeff Yass, who have contributed to Youngkin's PAC, are hoping the governor joins the presidential race.

Political experts who spoke ABC News, however, said they believe it is too late for Youngkin to organize and mount an effective 2024 campaign -- with the primary beginning in just two months. The results of the legislative election could be important if his sights are set on a potential 2028 White House bid, they said.

"Getting a long legislative wish list passed over the next two years [if Republicans take control] would only enhance his reputation and his potential for a strong bid," said Rackaway, the professor.

Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science at the University of Mary Washington, told ABC News that by not entirely closing the door on joining the 2024 race, Youngkin has been able to get national media buzz and high-profile donors to care about Virginia's relatively smaller scale elections.

"Youngkin has played this scenario very well," Farnsworth said. "It's better to be talked about than not."

Issues

While abortion is being seen as a top issue this election, both parties have also campaigned heavily on education.

"About two-thirds of Democratic identifiers say education is very important to them as they cast their ballot this year and about two-thirds of Republicans said the same thing," Farnsworth said.

In 2021, Youngkin ran on education -- advocating for parents to have more control over their children's schooling after pandemic-era restrictions that required remote classes, in order to slow COVID-19, also gave many families a new window into how their kids were being taught.

Virginia Democrats say that they want to boost public school funding to address learning loss during the pandemic and other issues.

If Republicans hold their state House majority and win back the state Senate next month, Youngkin could advance more education legislation. On the trail, Republican candidates have vowed to enhance what they call parental rights in public schools.

Other issues that both parties have campaigned on include crime, gun regulations taxation and environmental policy.

Why the elections in Virginia could matter in 2024

Experts said Tuesday's election results will give some signs of how Republican and Democratic voters view hot-button issues like abortion, crime and education, which are poised to be issues in key races in 2024, too.

The results will also test the strength of both parties' messaging heading into next year's presidential and congressional races, political experts told ABC News.

"The highly competitive districts in Virginia look a lot like the areas that will be hotly contested in 2024. Dense suburban metropolitan areas [are] the current political battlegrounds," Rackaway said.

He told ABC News that "Virginia in 2023 is the test bed in which the parties are trying out their 2024 plans."

If Virginia Democrats do well, their party colleagues across the country will likely try to replicate that effort and put abortion access front and center as a major issue in 2024, similar to how many Democrats campaigned in 2022 and 2023.

If Republicans win total control of the General Assembly, their party will likely push early voting and mail-in ballots in 2024, following in Youngkin's steps, while arguing that a 15-week abortion ban is a winning policy and focusing on public safety is effective messaging.

The national interest in the Virginia elections is evident in the immense amounts of money flowing into the state. All legislative candidates raised $46 million over four weeks in October, according to financial disclosures.

Races to watch

While all 40 state Senate seats and 100 state House seats will be on the ballot, control of each chamber is expected to come down to a handful of competitive races.

In the elections in 2021, Republicans won a narrow majority in the House of Delegates while Democrats won a slim majority in the Senate.

Here are the races to watch on Tuesday:

In the House District 21 race in western Prince William County, Republican John Stirrup is campaigning on improving public safety while Democrat Josh Thomas is hoping his opponent's views on abortion will win him the seat.

Stirrup was recorded over the summer saying he "would support a 100% abortion ban." On the trail, he has said he will back Youngkin's 15-week limit. Both candidates have raised about $2.7 million between them.

In the House District 57 race, Democratic candidate Susanna Gibson found herself in the spotlight after reports she previously engaged in sex acts that were consensually posted on a porn website. Gibson has dismissed the release of this information during the election as "the worst gutter politics" that was "designed to humiliate me and my family."

The contest between Gibson and David Owen, a businessman, in the suburban district outside Richmond has attracted large amounts of spending with both candidates raising $2.5 million.

In House District 82, Democrat Kimberly Pope Adams, a university auditor, and Republican incumbent Kim Taylor, a state delegate, have raised $3.1 million between them. They are fighting for a seat in the Petersburg area.

The race in Senate District 16 has put abortion front and center with Republican incumbent Siobhan Dunnavant, an obstetrician-gynecologist, banking on her long-time career to stake out a position on the issue that would allow abortion before 15 weeks of pregnancy and then after only in the case of exceptions -- though not through any point of gestation.

Dunnavant faces Democrat Schuyler VanValkenburg. The candidates have raised $6 million between them.

Democrat Russet Perry and Republican Juan Pablo Segura, two first-time candidates, are running in Senate District 31. They have broken fundraising records and received national attention.

Segura is a health-care entrepreneur and Russet Perry is a former prosecutor and CIA officer. Their contest is considered one of the most competitive in Virginia this year and they have raised $6.3 million between them.

Many political experts say the race between Republican Danny Diggs and incumbent Democrat Monty Mason in Senate District 24 could be the tightest of the elections.

Mason and Diggs, a former Poquoson and York County sheriff, have raised a total of $5.3 million.