Virginia Democrats are politicking like it’s 1989.
Now — as then — the U.S. Supreme Court is framing abortion as a front-burner issue in the election for governor.
Thirty-two years ago, a decision by the court in a Missouri case opened the door to state restrictions on abortion rights guaranteed in the 1973 landmark ruling in Roe vs. Wade. The ruling in the Missouri case also created an opening for the Democratic nominee, Doug Wilder, who would become the nation’s first elective Black governor.
Wilder narrowly defeated Republican Marshall Coleman, using the threat to abortion rights to depict himself as an advocate for women and Coleman as an adversary. Coleman had sworn off his moderate origins to favor a near-total ban on abortion. But in accommodating conservatives, he alienated election-deciding independents.
In 2021, Democrats hope to do to Glenn Youngkin, the GOP nominee for governor, what they did to Coleman: Use abortion to define the Republican as an out-of-touch extremist. This time, Democrats are relying on a new peril: the Supreme Court’s announcement this week that it will rule in the coming year on a Mississippi law that, if upheld, could conceivably upend Roe.
Youngkin, to avoid the trap from which Coleman could not escape, is trying to wiggle to the middle, declaring himself an abortion opponent — with an asterisk. In less than a month, and clearly spurred by the Supreme Court’s decision to take the Mississippi case, his pronouncements on abortion have gone from right-wing to reasonable.
On April 29, to a church audience in Chesterfield County, Youngkin attacked Gov. Ralph Northam’s clumsy, cringeworthy description in a 2019 radio interview in Washington of so-called late-term abortions and legislation allowing them: “I am pro-life ... And so together, we will stand up for the unborn, because it we don’t, who will?”
On May 10, as the newly minted nominee, Youngkin — sticking with a sufficiently vague talking point that might be music to the ears of anti-abortion voters, told a rally in Richmond, “We will protect the life of every Virginia child, born and unborn.”
On Wednesday, appearing on a Norfolk radio station, Youngkin filled in the blanks — a bit — to calm those suburban voters, many of them women, for whom access to abortion rights is an article of faith. He declared himself open to abortion in the three instances in which Republicans sometimes get a pass.
“I’m pro-life, and I believe that there should be exceptions for rape, incest and when the life of the mother is at risk,” said Youngkin, who went on to criticize Democrats for reversing a policy, put in place by Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell, banning public dollars to pay for abortion.
For the second time in two weeks, unexpected developments outside Virginia shaped the evolving race for governor. Their effect cannot be discounted, not given the shrill tribalism at nearly all levels of politics and that, because the majority of Virginians are nonnatives, the partisan cues that accompany these events can quickly inform voter preference.
Barely hours after Youngkin won the nomination, he was heartily endorsed by Donald Trump, whose unpopularity in Virginia fueled the Northam-led statewide sweep for Democrats in 2017, the installation in 2018 of a Democratic majority in the U.S. House delegation and the party’s takeback of the legislature in 2019.
Having been blessed by the former president, Youngkin found himself cursed by Democrats, most notably Terry McAuliffe, the front-runner for the gubernatorial nomination, as an apologist for Trump. Youngkin knows he must separate himself from Trump — or change the subject — to woo Democrat-leaning voters in the Washington-to-Virginia Beach battlegrounds.
The Macker, who can be as smash-mouth as Youngkin can be silver-tongued, is yowling — particularly on social media — that Youngkin is a Trump wolf in sheep’s clothing. That will get the attention of Democratic primary voters, but it will also arouse a GOP attempting to mend the center-right split that lifted McAuliffe to the governorship in 2013.
Abortion is potentially a more effective weapon against Youngkin, who — as signaled by his rapid pivot — knows the issue demands a perilous balancing act: He’s got to simultaneously ensure abortion foes he’s one of them and abortion-rights voters that he’s not a threat.
McAuliffe, who as governor from 2014 to 2018 used his appointive power to empanel a Board of Health that short-circuited Republican restrictions on abortion clinics, is content to make this a battle of extremes, calling for an amendment to the Virginia Constitution that would guarantee a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.
There is little doubt Youngkin would prefer to fight this campaign on turf that complements his skill set as a gazillionaire investment guy: the state’s improving, post-COVID-19 economy and the restored stability of its budget, thanks to the bounce-back from recession and federal pandemic aid.
Should both stall — perhaps paired with a nosedive in President Joe Biden’s standing — Youngkin won’t have to waste his breath on an issue he’d rather not talk about anyway: abortion.
Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649-6814 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @RTDSchapiro