The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On abortion, Dems start Virginia offensive as GOP renews old attacks

Red paint is outside the Supreme Court after it overturned the landmark abortion decision. (Craig Hudson for The Washington Post)
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At first, the ad from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee looks like a pitch for a new dating app, as a couple meets for the first time.

By the end, the fictional woman in the relationship has died after a doctor says she needs to terminate her pregnancy to save her life, but she cannot because in that society the procedure is illegal without exception. A closing message appears on the screen: “Hung Cao wants to ban your right to decide your own health care.”

The digital ad in the 10th District of Virginia marked the first for Democrats in the competitive contests on the issue of abortion across the state, perhaps a prelude to what is likely to remain a main issue for the party after the overturn of Roe v. Wade and as they search for ways to motivate voters.

Facing tough political head winds and inflation, Democrats have turned to advocating for abortion rights, and for others, same-sex marriage and contraception, as a key message in a midterm election cycle expected to favor Republicans. That has left Republicans in Virginia and beyond hoping to avoid ending up on defense on the abortion issue, often trying to paint Democrats as extreme on late-term abortion.

Cao, the former Navy captain and Vietnamese refugee running against Rep. Jennifer Wexton (D), and the Republicans in the two other competitive Virginia districts — state Sen. Jen Kiggans (R-Virginia Beach) in the 2nd and Prince William County Supervisor Yesli Vega in the 7th — have positioned themselves as firm opponents to abortion and unambiguously supported the demise of Roe.

But since the Supreme Court issued its decision, some House Republicans have discussed the possibility of a 15-week national ban and staunch abortion opponents, including Virginia Rep. Bob Good (R), want to see a complete end to abortion without exception, raising questions about how candidates would vote if advocates of those policies were to succeed in bringing them to the House floor in if Republicans gain control of Congress.

Many Republicans want to change the subject after abortion reversal

Cao said in an interview before the Supreme Court decision, and all three have said in public statements afterward, that overturning Roe leaves abortion policy up to the states. But Cao, Kiggans and Vega have not always been clear about their positions on specific policies and did not respond to questions about how they would vote on certain abortion proposals, restrictions or bans if elected, including whether they support exceptions to abortion bans for rape, incest or protecting the life of the mother.

Instead, Cao said in a statement that “I believe in life and believe it should be protected” and otherwise focused on Wexton, claiming she “supports unlimited access to late-term abortion at taxpayer expense,” which Wexton called a lie.

The ad targeting Cao, though under $100,000 in the 10th, was part of a seven-figure campaign in battleground districts nationwide targeting Asian American and Pacific Islander voters, and featuring an Asian couple, the DCCC said. Responding to the ad, Cao pivoted to the economy, saying, “Unfortunately for Jennifer Wexton, Asians like myself pay the same gas and grocery prices as everyone else. No amount of advertising will change that, or that Joe Biden is responsible for it.”

The overturn of Roe has presented a quandary for Republican candidates, said Mark Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University. They could risk alienating swing voters by publicly taking a harder stance on abortion bans or restrictions, or risk alienating antiabortion voters by opposing stricter bans, even as recent public opinion polls have shown a majority of Americans support access to abortion.

“It puts Republicans in a potentially vulnerable position because the issue now matters. They simply cannot deflect the issue by saying we have settled law on this issue,” Rozell said. “What they would do in Congress really matters, and it matters in a big way.”

Cao, Kiggans and Vega have instead sought to put Democrats on defense, each sprinkling their public comments with claims that Democrats support abortion “up to the moment of birth” or even “post-birth.” That strategy echoes attacks in the 2019 state House races when Republicans seized on Gov. Ralph Northam’s (D) and Del. Kathy Tran’s (D) unforced errors when discussing late-term abortion, leading Republicans, including Kiggans in a campaign ad, to accuse them of supporting “infanticide,” which they sharply denied.

Rozell said such attacks “stretch credulity beyond belief” but that Republicans are counting on enough swing voters to question whether either party reflects their view on abortion. In a video of Cao speaking about his stances on abortion at a May campaign event, provided to The Washington Post via a YouTube link, Cao inaccurately said that “under Governor Northam, they allow abortion all the way up to birth or even post-birth.” Late-term abortion is illegal in Virginia unless the mother’s life is in danger. Killing infants after delivery is also illegal.

Candidates define Republican direction in Virginia swing districts

Cao pivoted to a California bill that had caused a stir in antiabortion circles, where a false narrative going viral on the internet said California Democrats wanted to decriminalize infanticide. “This is the most evil thing I have seen,” Cao said, although the bill sponsor said it is intended to prevent prosecution for miscarriages or pregnancy-related deaths, not murder, of newborns.

Then he went further: “The Nazis did this. They take Jewish babies and just take the legs and just smash the babies and kill them. You think that can’t happen in this country?” He did not respond to questions for this article about the comments.

Wexton, who also serves as a chair of the DCCC program for vulnerable Democrats, said Democrats need to forcefully swat down claims like those of Cao. “That is an absolute lie, so we need to push back hard, because the fact is that you can’t get a third-trimester abortion in Virginia except under extremely limited circumstances involving the life and health of the mother, and you need three doctors to sign off on it,” Wexton said. “They’re just trying to distract from the fact that they’re taking away rights from millions of Americans and the fact that they’re out of touch with Americans on this issue.”

Wexton said Democrats intend to go on offense on a range of social issues, including same-sex marriage and contraception, constitutional rights that Justice Clarence Thomas said in his concurring opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson that the court should reconsider. House Republicans broadly rejected bills to codify rights to same-sex and interracial marriage and to contraception this month, ample campaign fodder for Democrats. Cao, Vega and Kiggans also did not respond to questions about how they would have voted on those bills.

In the 7th District of Virginia, Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D) has already been on the offensive, repeatedly highlighting comments Vega made on rape-related pregnancy that were published by Axios last month, drawing outrage. Vega was caught on a recording at a May campaign event saying it “wouldn’t surprise” her that pregnancy could be less likely after rape — which is false — after an unidentified person asked her if she knew that.

In a statement that day, Vega did not explain her comments, instead trying to turn the tables on Spanberger. Like Cao, Vega also said in a candidate survey by the Prince William & Manassas Family Alliance that she would support a law “to protect innocent life from conception to natural death.”

Kiggans, hoping to oust Rep. Elaine Luria (D), has previously said in response to questions about her abortion stance that she is “100 percent, unapologetically pro-life” and has often highlighted her opposition to using state taxpayer dollars to subsidize abortion for low-income women.

Yesli Vega questions on tape whether pregnancy less likely after rape

Rozell said Democrats would do well to look to the 1989 Virginia governor’s race, which unfolded after a Supreme Court ruling on abortion upholding certain Missouri state restrictions. “The issue was theoretical for most voters until it became actual,” he said.

Soon, Democrat Douglas Wilder decided to make abortion rights a central focus of his campaign and his ads, offering a Jeffersonian message about the traditional Virginia values of individual rights and framing his Republican opponent, Marshall Coleman, as extreme in his opposition to abortion.

Longtime Virginia Republican strategist Boyd Marcus Jr., who was Coleman campaign manager at the time, said in an interview that Wilder “changed the momentum in the election.” He said, “The world is a different place now than it was in 1989, but in 1989 those ads were effective. They were effective because all of a sudden we were not talking about the issues of what was good for government in Virginia. We were talking about abortion.”

Keeping in mind the very different political environment today, Marcus still anticipated that the much bigger Supreme Court ruling overturning Roe almost “certainly is a boost to the Democrats, because it will motivate a segment of people who may not have a lot of enthusiasm.”

If Marcus were advising the Republicans in competitive districts, which he added he is not, he would suggest limiting their discussion of abortion to noting abortion policy is now in the hands of state legislatures, largely just as candidates have been doing. He doubted a national abortion bill from either party could get through Congress anyway, considering the Senate filibuster.

Still, Marcus and Rozell both noted that any extra motivation that the overturn of Roe gives Democratic voters to turn out will not happen in a vacuum and context is key, with economic concerns still a dominant issue in the midterms as well, which the Republican candidates pivot to speaking about at every opportunity. “The question is whether swing voters will prioritize that issue above others in a period of 9 percent inflation, high gas prices, low public approval for the Democrats who are leading in Congress,” Rozell said.

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