Republican nominee for governor, Ken Cuccinelli, right, is joined on stage with the other members of the ticket, E.W. Jackson, left, his wife, Theadora, second from right, attorney general candidate Mark Obenshain, his wife, Suzanne, center, and Tiero Cuccinelli, second from right, at the end of the Virginia Republican convention in Richmond on Saturday. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

A leading antiabortion group plans to use Virginia’s 2013 statewide races as a strategic proving ground ahead of next year’s midterm elections, raising the stakes in a gubernatorial contest marked by heated debate over social issues.

The Susan B. Anthony List said in February that it would spend $1.5 million to boost Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R) in his gubernatorial race against businessman Terry McAuliffe (D). But the group’s interest in the commonwealth goes beyond its pledge to Cuccinelli, a longtime abortion foe.

“We have made Virginia a priority state for 2013,” the SBA List says in its current business plan. “We propose a massive investment there, seeking to make 2013 a template for wider victories in the mid-term elections in 2014.”

The escalation of the abortion battle shows that groups on both sides of the debate recognize the importance of Virginia’s November contest. Democrats, including McAuliffe’s campaign, have sought to make abortion and women’s health issues a central focus of the race, while Cuccinelli and his allies have tried to focus on economic issues.

It may be harder for Cuccinelli to avoid discussing the issue now that he is joined on the Republican ticket by Chesapeake minister E.W. Jackson and state Sen. Mark D. Obenshain, the GOP’s lieutenant governor and attorney general nominees, both of whom oppose abortion.

The SBA List says its “budget is comprehensive” and will include TV, radio and online ads, live phone banks and direct mail, among other elements, to develop an effective message that can be deployed to other states next year. In Virginia, the SBA List plan reads, “a longtime red state is shading purple, with liberal partisans claiming a shift in their direction.”

A copy of the plan was provided to The Washington Post by The Bridge Project, an offshoot of the pro-Democratic opposition-research group American Bridge 21st Century. The Bridge Project and NARAL Pro-Choice America are expected to release a report Tuesday designed to portray the SBA List as an “extreme group” with a “radical agenda.”

The report will be accompanied by a social media campaign attacking the SBA List as “anti-choice” and “anti-women,” criticizing group officials for past comments, like defending Senate candidate Todd Akin (R) of Missouri last year after his statement that “legitimate rape” rarely causes pregnancies.

Marjorie Dannenfelser, the president of SBA List, confirmed the details of the group’s strategy and said Republicans in Virginia and elsewhere are miscalculating by avoiding discussion of abortion.

“It’s a hangover from bad handling in the presidential race on the Republican side [that] led to a conclusion that you never talk about” abortion, said Dannenfelser, who referred to Virginia’s election as “pivotal.”

Instead of getting sucked into debates over issues like Akin’s “rape” comments, Dannenfelser said Republicans should focus on areas where “common ground” could be reached, like banning late-term abortions and new guidelines for abortion clinics.

The latter has taken on renewed urgency in the wake of the murder conviction of Philadelphia abortion doctor Kermit Gosnell. And the issue is relevant to the gubernatorial race in Virginia, where Cuccinelli has defended implementing rules requiring abortion clinics to meet the same health standards as hospitals.

Responding to the report criticizing her group, Dannenfelser said: “I think the best answer to that would be to go directly to women. . . . They agree with us far more than they do the extreme positions on the other side.”

But Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America, said the SBA List “represent[s] extreme politics out of step with the consensus of Americans who believe that women and families know what’s best for them.”