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2023 General Assembly elections

Column: Trump, abortion fight spell disaster for Virginia Republicans

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For Virginia’s General Assembly elections in 2023, the lesson of this year’s midterms is clear: Abortion rights and the continued presence of Donald Trump on the national scene will dominate the campaigns.

The 2023 elections for all 100 House of Delegates seats and all 40 state Senate seats will be contested on a number of fronts: some of them regional, some of them Virginia-specific, and some of them tied to distinctly Washington issues and personalities. But nothing will command the political landscape throughout the commonwealth next year so much as abortion rights and the former president’s return to presidential campaigning.

Regarding abortion, the potency of an issue created at the federal level by the Supreme Court’s June Dobbs ruling that ended 49 years of legal protections for abortions will be even greater in Virginia’s off-year elections as abortion rights now are an issue for all 50 state legislatures.

Virginia Republicans have indelibly put themselves on the record as supporting significant restrictions, up to and including complete bans, on abortion. After the Supreme Court’s decision in June overturning Roe v. Wade, Gov. Glenn Youngkin proposed a ban on abortions after 15 weeks’ gestation, before many women discover they’re pregnant. But he also said in an online forum with the Family Foundation of Virginia that he would sign “any bill that comes to my desk … in order to protect life.”

Democrats will pursue the issue aggressively, particularly in districts clustered in Virginia’s populous suburbs that, since reapportionment, can dictate statewide elections and the balance of legislative power. They will argue that an innocuous-sounding 15-week cutoff (compared to about 26 weeks now) is merely a stalking horse for progressively harsher restrictions.

The key politically is that the Dobbs decision has deprived Republican candidates of a disarming argument to camouflage their opposition to abortion rights. From 1973, when Roe v. Wade legalized abortion nationally, until it was overturned in June, savvy anti-abortion candidates disguised their positions by saying that they respected court precedents and constitutional law. Other than peripheral constraints such as requiring minors to get parental consent, denying public funding for abortions and banning certain rare, late-term procedures, they claimed that they posed no threat to women’s reproductive autonomy. Dobbs has now removed their cover. No longer can they simultaneously please devout abortion opponents and mollify moderates.

Abortion rights were a significant driver in the midterms, particularly among women, who made up 52% of the turnout. Contrary to national polling that largely dismissed the issue’s importance, exit polls showed that it ranked a close second behind inflation and the economy as the top issue on voters’ minds.

Low presidential job-approval numbers and an economy burdened by the worst inflation in 40 years normally would combine for a red rout capable of giving the GOP nearly veto-proof majorities in Congress. That didn’t happen this year.

Why?

As dismal as President Joe Biden’s numbers are, voters spurned Trump and Trump-loyal candidates nationwide. Expect that to happen next year in Virginia as well.

For decades, Virginia legislative elections were about intensely parochial issues whether Democrats or Republicans ran Richmond. But state politics became more nationalized during Donald Trump’s presidency, which will likely continue in 2023.

Since 2016, elections in Virginia have, to a large degree, been a referendum on Trump. The GOP suffered because of it, and it will haunt the party in next year’s General Assembly races with Trump’s announcement that he is running again in 2024. The applause of Trump’s supporters at Mar-a-Lago when he announced his next campaign could never measure up to the thunderous cheers and popping of champagne corks by Democrats throughout the commonwealth upon learning of the former president’s return to presidential politics.

Despite the GOP’s deflating midterm results, Trump remains formidable within the party, and Trump-averse Republicans have little hope of being nominated. In the exurbs and suburbs, candidates who embrace Trump to win primaries will bear that stain in next November’s general election in districts with unambiguous records of rejecting all things Trump.

Nothing will help Virginia Democrats more next year than the former president bouncing from rally to rally spewing the sort of nonsensical invective that Virginia voters have rebuffed time and again during the Trump presidency years, and again this year.

Virginia’s elections in 2023 will be a referendum on abortion rights and former President Trump. It is a formula for a GOP disaster.

Mark J. Rozell is dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. Contact him at mrozell@gmu.edu.

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