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How statewide elections in Virginia could affect abortion access


Virginia voters decide this week whether the state legislature will remain under Democratic control or Republicans will take over, and that could determine whether Virginia joins the rest of the South in restricting abortion rights, which is why abortion rights advocates and opponents are pouring millions into these races. Here's Jahd Khalil of VPM News.

JAHD KHALIL, BYLINE: Dozens of voters gather in front of a stage waiting for Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin. It's cold. When Youngkin comes out, he's in a down red vest instead of his signature fleece. He's in campaign mode.


GLENN YOUNGKIN: What time is it? Time to win.


KHALIL: He's here to campaign for three suburban Republicans.


YOUNGKIN: We got work to do. We started in 2021, and now we got to finish the work, and that work is holding the House, flipping the Senate.

KHALIL: The state Senate is controlled by Democrats. That means they can block Youngkin and House Republicans' attempts to put new restrictions on abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. That decision energized Democrats seeking to preserve current Virginia law, which generally allows abortion. In 2022 congressional elections, Democrats won key areas that Youngkin had previously carried. Republicans needed a new strategy.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Here's the truth - there is no ban. Virginia Republicans support a reasonable 15-week limit.

KHALIL: Youngkin put out this ad early. He and other GOP candidates have been strategic in messaging around their agenda, telling voters in a swing state that they don't want a ban on abortion - just restrictions.

SIOBHAN DUNNAVANT: People assume that Republicans all have one opinion - on ban.

KHALIL: Republican state Senate candidate Siobhan Dunnavant even talks about providing choices despite supporting new abortion restrictions.

DUNNAVANT: We should keep abortion legal with enough time for a woman to have the opportunity to consider her choices. This is a real challenge for women.

KHALIL: Dunnavant is a practicing OB-GYN. She aligns with Youngkin's support for a 15-week limit on abortion as long as the exceptions include one for severe fetal anomalies. But she insists it's not a ban.

DUNNAVANT: A ban, if you look it up in the dictionary, means none, prohibited. That is fearmongering language that they're using.

KHALIL: Ninety-three percent of abortions took place at or before 13 weeks, according to 2020 data from the CDC, and another 6% between 13 and 20 weeks. Abortion advocates say that the most affected by a potential 15-week ban are those who are rural, poor or experiencing domestic partner abuse. This conversation about X or Y number of weeks isn't actually effective, says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster.

CELINDA LAKE: Fifteen-week bans, six-week bans - people get very confused about that. People aren't very good at math or biology, as it turns out, and people are like, I want to hear, do you support people's fundamental freedom to make these health care decisions for themselves?

KHALIL: Lake says Democrats are keeping it simple on the campaign trail.

LAKE: I think the Virginia Democrats have been very, very disciplined about not getting into the weeds and the details because for voters, there's a fundamental freedom and right at stake here.

KHALIL: In many ways, Peyton Nichols is exactly who Republicans are trying to target. She votes in a swing area that traditionally tilts blue, but she says she's personally against abortion.

PEYTON NICHOLS: I feel like I'm a little bit a outsider on that and everything.

KHALIL: But she says the GOP messaging didn't convince her.

NICHOLS: I just think that it's really important that the women can make the choices.

KHALIL: Other voters, like Pete Johnson, who oppose abortion rights, are voting for candidates who support less stringent restrictions than the total bans they want.

PETE JOHNSON: I am a Republican, but I'm also a Christian, so it's tough to put any kind of week on abortion. I'd rather we don't have it at all.

KHALIL: In Ohio, voters are casting ballots directly on abortion rights, but it's more complicated here in Virginia.

BRIAN ROBINSON: One thing that's really difficult to untangle is this is not a referendum on Tuesday. This is an election amongst candidates who stand for a variety of policies.

KHALIL: Brian Robinson is a Republican public affairs consultant in Georgia. He says he'd look for where abortion was the deciding issue in Virginia versus things like crime or inflation.

ROBINSON: I would need some convincing to see that this is top of mind for voters. If there's a case like that in Virginia, it could be applicable to Georgia and to other swingy states.

KHALIL: Virginia's a place that's very diverse, racially and economically, and it has a reputation as being sort of a temperature check on national politics. Voters and politicos are paying attention to the Old Dominion, knowing it could be a preview for 2024.

For NPR News, I'm Jahd Khalil in Henrico, Va. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jahd Khalil