Virginia is serving as a test case for both parties’ political messaging ahead of next year’s general election, as abortion and crime take center stage in the state’s legislative races.
Democratic state House and Senate candidates have largely zeroed in on abortion as a key messaging tactic, painting their Republican opponents as extreme on the issue. Republicans, on the other hand, have hit Democrats for being too lax on crime.
The election comes as both parties navigate a post-Roe v. Wade world that has seen crime become an increasing concern for voters.
“It really is the Democratic message vs. the Republican message and seeing which of those is resonating more,” said Abhi Rahman, communications director at the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC), a group that works to elect Democrats in state legislature races.
Rahman noted that of the 10 most competitive House of Delegates races in Virginia, seven are open seats, while five of the most competitive state Senate seats are open seats.
“It means basically there is no incumbent advantage,” he noted.
Polling shows a tight race in the commonwealth. A University of Mary Washington poll released last week found 40 percent of respondents saying they favored Democratic majorities in both chambers next year, while 37 percent said they favored Republican majorities. The poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 3 points.
And both sides are pouring massive amounts of money into the off-year battle. On Thursday, Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) Spirit of Virginia PAC announced it brought in more than $7 million during the third quarter, while the DLCC said it was injecting $2 million into the races in an effort to boost Democratic candidates.
Republican and Democratic groups and candidates have been infiltrating Virginia’s airwaves with spots pushing their messaging on their preferred issue in recent months.
In July, Virginia House Republicans launched a six-figure ad buy targeting 12 House Democrats, painting them as extreme on crime and taxes. Meanwhile, Democrats have sought to capitalize on the party’s successful attacks on Republicans over abortion last cycle.
Democrats point to the Virginia special House of Delegates race in January in the 7th state Senate District. Now-Sen. Aaron Rouse (D), who campaigned heavily on the issue of abortion, flipped the seat, which represents swaths of Virginia Beach and Norfolk. And two months before that, Democrats performed better than expected in the 2022 midterms.
“The reason we believe that seat flipped for us is because of the messaging on women’s reproductive rights,” said state Sen. Mamie Locke (D), chairwoman of the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus. “I did door-knocking for that candidate, and much of what we heard is, ‘This candidate going to protect women’s right to choose?’”
According to data from the firm AdImpact cited in the Washington Post on Friday, abortion is the top issue in ads supporting House and Senate Democrats in Virginia’s Legislature. Those ads total $4.5 million.
“People know that the only thing that is stopping Virginia from becoming the next Florida is having a Democratic Senate,” Rahman said.
The same University of Mary Washington poll found that 53 percent of Virginia voters said the Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade last year would be a “major factor” for them at the ballot box; 23 percent of respondents said abortion should be legal in all cases, while 34 percent said it should be legal in most cases. Another 27 percent of voters said abortion should be illegal in most cases, while 8 percent said it should be illegal in all cases.
Republicans note that there is much more nuance in abortion messaging, noting how voters nationwide tend to be more supportive of a 15-week federal ban.
“We’ve told Democrats and the whole commonwealth exactly where we are,” said Garren Shipley, communications director for House of Delegates Speaker Todd Gilbert. “We are at a limit after 15 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest, and the life and health of the mother.”
A Gallup poll released last June found that 69 percent of Americans said they believe first-trimester abortions should be “generally legal,” while 37 percent said they supported second-trimester abortion access in general and 22 percent said the same about abortion access in the third trimester. However, Gallup also found that support for second- and third-trimester abortions increased by 9 percent since 2018.
Veteran Virginia political analyst Bob Holsworth said the Democratic messaging on abortion polls well, but noted the support changes when it comes to a 15-week ban.
“If you ask about the 15-week ban, most of the polls I see, it’s relatively even,” Holsworth said. “What the Democrats are doing, they’re just saying [the Republicans] want a ban, and 15 weeks is disingenuous.”
“For the Republicans, what’s interesting is, does the 15-week ban … does this work? Or does the fact that Republicans have pushed far more stringent bans in many states make their claim suspect?”
Virginia Republicans were not immune from Democratic successes during last year’s midterm elections, with Democrats winning two out of the three competitive federal House races, in the 7th and 10th Districts. Republicans were successful in flipping Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District.
Democrats in 2022 focused heavily on the threat of potential state abortion bans in their elections, catching many Republicans nationwide flat-footed. But Republicans inside and outside of Virginia say this time around they’re confronting the issue head-on.
“We’re not putting our head in the sand,” said Zack Roday coordinated campaigns director for Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC. “We’re correcting the record and sharing where Democrats are in this case, with a pretty simple choice between a reasonable 15-week limit to protect life and an extreme position where there are no limits to abortion.”
“I just always go back to Campaign 101,” Roday continued. “You can’t just ignore what your opponent is leveling against you when it’s their No. 1 attack.”
Roday said Republicans are continuing to zero in on kitchen-table issues, such as education, crime, and the economy.
“We’re running toward where the broad majority of issues and where their interests are and that’s the kitchen table around those three: economy, education, and public safety,” he said.
On crime, Republicans are seeking to peel away from the support Democrats are trying to win in the suburban enclaves in Northern Virginia, outside of Richmond, and the greater Virginia Beach.
“There is an understanding out there that persuadable voters are concerned about inflation and they’re also concerned about crime,” Shipley said. “The closer you get to an urban area, the more concern about crime pops up.”
Holsworth also noted that many of the Republican attacks on crime in Northern Virginia are linked to the election of progressive prosecutors in the region.
“The crime issue is one which is really an attack on the progressive prosecutors, which they’re hoping will rub off on the Democrats,” he said.
But Democrats also say they are also focused on running on kitchen table issues, including public safety.
“Voters are really concerned about what happens at their kitchen tables,” said Locke, the state senator. “Yes, they’re concerned about crime. They’re concerned about what’s going on at the federal level, but they’re more concerned about what’s going on in my neighborhood, what’s going on in my community.”
Democrats are also trying to flip the script on Republicans, saying the GOP is to blame for crime-related issues, citing issues such as gun control.
“Every time that we have tried to address those kinds of issues, they have voted against all of it,” Locke said.
“We can’t be hypocritical about this issue,” she continued. “Where Democrats have always tried to figure out ways we can be sensible about this issue, we have had roadblocks thrown in our way.”