Democrats appear to be on track to widen their majority in the Virginia Senate, a key chamber they are defending this year in a state where abortion access is at stake.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Democrat Aaron Rouse, a former National Football League player and former member of the Virginia Beach City Council, held a narrow lead over his Republican opponent Kevin Adams in a special election to fill a vacancy in Virginia’s Seventh Senate District. Even if Rouse already has victory declared, there are still a few absentee ballots to count that could wipe out his lead of less than 350 votes. If Rouse prevails, Democrats would have a 22-18 lead in the House, which began its annual session Wednesday.
The race could decide whether state Republicans can agree to more restrictions on abortion this year. Although Democrats make up the majority in the Senate, their margin would be only 21-19 in the House if Adams wins. Adams said he supports a 15 week abortion ban proposed by Republican Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin. And Democratic state Senator Joseph D. Morrissey (D-Richmond) is vocally opposed to abortion and has said he would maintain a “open mind” when it comes to further restrictions on abortion. That means the house could potentially be tied to the issue, and Republican Lieutenant Governor Winsome Sears, also an anti-abortion politician, would have cast the deciding vote.
Virginia is one of many states considering additional abortion restrictions this year. Bills that would ban abortions after fetal heart activity is detected in Nebraska, it would to prevent local governments from funding employees seeking abortions through their health plans or reimbursement for out-of-state travel in Tennessee, and that it would ban abortions earlier 12 weeks of pregnancy in North Carolina they are among those on the table. The Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion think tank, discovered it 24 states they probably would have banned abortion or had already done so in 2023.
This made abortion a key issue for Democrats in state legislative races, including Rouse. She has run several television ads focused on the issue and has received more than $100,000 from Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia this cycle.
“When I was in the NFL, my job was to be the last line of defense. Right now, this is what we need in Richmond,” he says a December announcement. “Women’s rights are at stake, but I will never back down.”
Before Rouse’s apparent victory, the threat to abortion access in the state was very real. Currently, Virginia allows abortions up to about 26 weeks of pregnancy and, thereafter, only in cases where three doctors certify that the life of the pregnant woman is at risk. Youngkin’s proposal for a 15-week ban includes exceptions for rape, incest and saving the pregnant woman’s life. Democrats have argued that the governor’s proposal could result in jail time for women and doctors, but Youngkin’s office said fired that framing as “political posturing” and said he would not jail women.
Youngkin also proposed preventing state Medicaid from covering abortions when a fetus has an “incapacitating” physical or mental deformity and preventing state funds from being used to support abortion services.
Those measures could pass in the Republican-controlled state House. But if Rouse wins, that would likely preclude the possibility of a tie in the state Senate and doom Youngkin’s proposal for now.
What’s next for abortion rights in Virginia?
Rouse’s apparent victory would maintain the status quo on abortion rights in Virginia, but only temporarily.
Democrats could lose a vote in the state Senate if Sen. Jennifer McClellan (D-Richmond) resigns, reopening the possibility of a tie. She is heavily favored to win a special election to fill a vacant federal congressional seat in February, but she told the Virginia Mercury that she is confident that any vote on abortion legislation will conclude before she has to resign and that the Democratic caucus will hold out against further restrictions on abortion. It’s unclear whether there would be time to call a special election to fill that seat, given that it is expected to occur at least 55 days before the June 20 primary.
So come November, all 140 state legislature seats are up for grabs, and if Republicans can defend their majority in the state House and win just one state Senate seat, Youngkin’s bill or even more extreme restrictions on abortion, as a proposed ban later 12 weeks of pregnancy, may return to the table. Youngkin has previously said he will “cheerfully” sign any bill [to protect life] that lands on my desk” – not just his invention.
At the same time, abortion rights groups in the state are trying to further protect abortion rights. REPRO Rising Virginia, an abortion rights group, is pushing for statehood constitutional amendment this would establish the right to reproductive freedom and to make pregnancy decisions without discrimination, as well as protect abortion providers and their patients from being criminalized.
Though other states have successfully passed similar amendments enshrining abortion rights in their state constitutions over the past year, the amendment likely won’t happen in Virginia any time soon, especially as long as Republicans control the State House. Any amendment would have to pass the Legislature two consecutive years in a state House election before going to the voters.
Virginia is a top priority for Democrats in 2023
If Rouse wins, that bodes well for Democrats who are looking to take back the Virginia House of Delegates and defend their majority in the state Senate this fall.
They only need three more seats to win in the House, and if they can widen their majority in the state Senate with a win in the Seventh District, they’d have a cushion ahead of November, when a new election map drawn by a court. Appointed special master will shake up the dynamics for Democratic incumbents. The maps are thought to slightly benefit Democrats, but some Democratic lawmakers have discussed that the new map was supposed to offer a greater advantage to their group and unfairly pit the incumbents against each other.
“Virginia is a huge priority,” said Jessica Post, chair of the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, the Democratic Party’s fundraising arm dedicated to state legislative races. “We have to work hard, especially with the incumbent Democrats, to introduce them to their new constituents and [ensure] they have a great record to run against.
Democrats expect Youngkin to spend significantly in state legislative races before a alleged 2024 presidential bid, which he hasn’t ruled out yet. A big win this year could help position him as a figure similar to Republican Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis or Democratic Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, both seen as having a future in national politics in part because of their ability to hang on and delve into majorities in their state legislatures.
“We think Youngkin, because he’s both personally wealthy and has a great ability to raise funds nationally, will try to use him as a test case,” Post said. “Hopefully we can find the national interest in Virginia that we’ve been able to find in previous cycles and humiliate Youngkin and manage some of his ambitions in the state.”
Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin and Yesli Vega, Republican nominee for Northern Virginia’s 7th congressional district, speak to reporters after a campaign event at Locust Shade Park November 7, 2022, in Triangle, Virginia. Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images