Abortion, a long-simmering issue in Virginia — a purple state where rural evangelicals sharply differ from urban progressives — has been elevated in this year’s gubernatorial contest because of changing dynamics on the federal level.
President Trump has vowed to appoint antiabortion judges who could unravel federal protections, turning the power to decide whether women can terminate pregnancies back to governors and state legislatures.
Virginia, the first to have a competitive statewide contest since Trump took office, offers a window into how abortion politics may reshape gubernatorial races to be held in about three dozen states in 2018.
“It’s so fundamentally different with a Republican in the White House and a national threat to Roe v. Wade, a threat that hasn’t existed in a decade,” said Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist with roots in Virginia. “This has animated and motivated a lot of voters to move this issue even higher up as a priority.”
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ralph Northam, the sitting lieutenant governor and a physician, has positioned himself as a champion of abortion rights. Republican rival Ed Gillespie said he’d like to see the procedure banned, with exceptions for rape, incest and to save the mother’s life.
The Republican-controlled state legislature has tried for years to restrict abortion, foiled by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), who has vetoed bills to defund Planned Parenthood and says the governor’s mansion is the “brick wall” against attempts to limit women’s reproductive rights.
If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that established a woman’s right to an abortion, at any time in the next four years, McAuliffe’s successor could decide the legality of abortion in the Old Dominion.
Planned Parenthood’s Virginia arm has launched a $3 million field operation to support Northam and other Democrats — surpassing its spending to elect McAuliffe in 2013.
Foes of abortion rights, energized by success in Washington, see a chance to tear down McAuliffe’s wall.
Opponents of abortion are working with urgency, concerned that Virginia’s changing demographics — growing urban areas, more residents of color — are turning the swing state blue. All five of the current statewide officeholders — Sens. Tim Kaine and Mark R. Warner as well as McAuliffe, Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring — are Democrats who support abortion rights.
Northam’s election would mean “eight years of consecutive Democrat, anti-life leadership, and it would be very difficult to retract any of that and regain the ground we would lose,” said Don Blake, president of the Virginia Christian Alliance.
Trump pleased abortion opponents when he appointed Neil M. Gorsuch, seen as favorable to their cause, to fill the vacancy left by Justice Antonin Scalia on the Supreme Court.
He’ll have a chance to change the court’s ideological balance if any of three justices older than 78 retire or die during his tenure. The GOP-controlled Senate has also scrapped the filibuster option for Supreme Court nominees, making it easier for the majority to advance antiabortion judges.
In addition to cutting funding for Planned Parenthood, abortion opponents in Virginia want to bar abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Gillespie says he would support such bills; Northam opposes them.
Abortion rights activists lined up early behind Northam, citing the need for a steadfast ally in a changed national climate. During the Democratic primary, some abortion supporters attacked Northam’s opponent, former congressman Tom Perriello — even though Perriello was running as a progressive who backs abortion rights — because he once opposed public subsidies for insurers who cover abortion.
“We need someone who is unwavering,” said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro Choice Virginia, which has deployed dozens of canvassers for Northam since March. “We have seen that happen before where our rights could be put on the table, on the negotiating block. We cannot tolerate that anymore.”
The national Democratic Party has been enmeshed this year in a debate about whether to back Democratic candidates who oppose abortion. In an effort to reach out to disaffected voters, particularly in rural areas, several party leaders, including House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, say Democrats should not use litmus tests. Others insist that reproductive rights are a core value of the party.
National antiabortion groups think that defeating Northam in Virginia would send a message that Democrats should not enforce party purity when it comes to abortion.
“We want to see Democrats see this extremism on this issue as a political vulnerability,” said Mallory Quigley, a spokeswoman for the Susan B. Anthony List, which is planning to run digital advertisements on behalf of Gillespie later this year.
But Democrats say that supporting abortion rights is a winning stance for them in Virginia.
A Washington Post poll in 2013 found 55 percent of Virginia voters favored allowing abortion in all or most instances. A poll from Christopher Newport University this year found a slim majority opposed bans on abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
Geoffrey Garin, a pollster for the Northam campaign, said his initial surveys showed Gillespie’s comment during a primary debate that he would “like to see abortion be banned” drew some of the sharpest reaction from voters in the heavily populated areas of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads.
“The opposition to a woman’s right to choose is a dealbreaker for a lot of voters who otherwise would be willing to consider supporting a Republican,” Garin said. “It’s created an important bright red line for a lot of voters up and down the urban crescent and well into the exurbs.”
Gillespie has tried to play down abortion and instead focus on the economy and public safety. Asked about Gillespie’s views on abortion, his spokesman, Dave Abrams, responds that Northam’s views “are outside the mainstream” and that the lieutenant governor supports late-term abortions — which are illegal in Virginia and opposed by most voters.
Northam has said that the timing of abortions should be determined by a woman and her doctor, but he does not want to change the state law that limits late-term abortions.
The number of abortions performed in Virginia declined by one-third between 2009 and 2015, according to state data. The decline coincided with a rollback of abortion rights by the state’s past GOP governor, Robert F. McDonnell, whose term ended in 2014.
In 2011, he signed legislation regulating abortion clinics as hospitals — a move that critics said was meant to drive the clinics out of business. The regulations have since been dropped by the state health board dominated by McAuliffe appointees.
McDonnell in 2012 also signed a bill mandating abdominal ultrasounds before abortion. As originally written, the bill would have required women seeking an abortion early in a pregnancy to undergo a vaginal ultrasound. It made Virginia fodder for late-night comedians.
Northam, then a state lawmaker, raised his profile — and won the allegiance of abortion rights supporters — with a speech on the floor of the Senate where he said the ultrasounds would be about as useful as a probe of a bottle of Gatorade.
The proposed requirement of an invasive ultrasound was ultimately defeated. But it continues to resonate in this year’s down-ballot races.
The Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Jill Vogel, was the sponsor of the ultrasound legislation, and she is trying to defend it against attacks by Democratic rival Justin Fairfax.
In the race for attorney general, incumbent Herring issued a legal opinion paving the way to liberate abortion clinics from requirements that they meet the same standards as hospitals. His Republican opponent, lawyer John Adams, has accused Herring of politicizing the office.
Mark Rozell, who has studied Virginia’s religious right, says the combination of Trump’s election, earlier policy debates and the defeat of an antiabortion Republican ticket in 2013 have made abortion an especially important issue this year.
“In this election cycle, it’s much more difficult for Republicans to maneuver,” said Rozell, the dean of the public policy school at George Mason University. “Democrats are not going to let that issue go. It’s going to come up relentlessly.”
On a recent Saturday in Arlington, Planned Parenthood volunteers knocked on doors in the deep-blue stronghold to get people to pay attention to the governor’s race amid a blizzard of news from Washington.
Andy Leighton, a 70-year-old retired musician, told a volunteer wearing a #PinkOutVa shirt that he had donated to the organization for at least 25 years. But asked if he was following the governor’s race, he responded, “Not until right now.”
“The choice is really, really stark,” said Kate Steir, the volunteer. “Ed Gillespie is very open about wanting to defund Planned Parenthood.”
Leighton promised to vote for Northam.
“I believe in a woman’s right to make decisions about her own life,” Leighton later told a reporter. “And I believe it’s under threat.”
Meanwhile, religious organizations are planning to assemble voter guides reminding people about the stakes for abortion in the governor’s race.
Some pastors are planning to impress upon their congregations the importance of the election.
Gary Hamrick, pastor of the Cornerstone Chapel in Leesburg where Gillespie recently attended, often gives Election Day sermons in presidential years touting the importance of family values and protecting Israel.
With a state-level contest this year, he plans to focus his sermon on one important theme.
“God values life from the womb to the tomb, and we need to also protect life ourselves,” Hamrick said. “And we need to do what we can to be involved in the political process, to protect life ourselves.”