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As Texas law takes effect, abortion looms large in Virginia governor’s race

Abortion opponents rally on the steps of the Capitol in Richmond in 2019. (Steve Helber/AP)
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RICHMOND — A new law banning most abortions in Texas instantly planted the divisive issue in the center of a governor's race some 1,500 miles away in Virginia, where Democrat Terry McAuliffe had already been hammering on the subject and Republican Glenn Youngkin was doing his best to avoid it.

McAuliffe, a former governor seeking a comeback, launched two TV ads focused on abortion just days before the Texas statute took effect Wednesday. Texas pushed his efforts into overdrive. Within hours, McAuliffe was blasting the law at a business forum, in fundraising appeals and on Twitter. He followed up with a conference call with reporters the next day, where he called for enshrining Roe v. Wade in the state Constitution.

Youngkin — caught on video early in the campaign saying he would play down his opposition to abortion to woo independent voters, then go “on offense” as governor — sidestepped questions about whether he would back a Texas-style law in Virginia, while noting that he supports abortion in certain circumstances in which the Texas law does not allow it.

Video shows Glenn Youngkin saying he can’t fully discuss abortion or risk losing independent Virginia voters

Youngkin also grumbled a bit that the issue was suddenly overshadowing all others, but he embraced it in his own way, as his campaign played up a video calling McAuliffe’s abortion stance “extreme.”

But there was no hesitation on the part of Winsome Sears, the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor and former state delegate, who said in an interview Friday on Newsmax that she would back a Texas-style bill. “I would support that,” she said. “When did it become the wrong thing for us to support the babies in the womb?”

Sears spokesman Mike Allers walked that back a bit in a written statement Saturday that said: “While Winsome personally supports protecting life and the most vulnerable, as a former legislator herself she also recognizes that Virginia is very different from Texas, and that legislation could never have the votes to pass the Virginia General Assembly.”

Del. Jason Miyares (R-Virginia Beach), who is running for attorney general primarily on law-and-order issues, did not weigh in on the Texas law on social media. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment on whether he would support similar legislation for Virginia.

Meanwhile, McAuliffe’s statewide ticket mates — Del. Hala S. Ayala (D-Prince William), who is running for lieutenant governor, and Attorney General Mark Herring (D), who is seeking a third term — reiterated their support for abortion rights on Twitter.

A perennial flash point in Virginia politics, abortion was always expected to be a factor in this year’s race for governor, particularly with the U.S. Supreme Court poised this fall to consider Mississippi’s request to reverse Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 ruling that legalized abortion nationwide or established a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy.

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Abortion has been overshadowed at times this year by a range of matters including mask and vaccine mandates (McAuliffe supports them; Youngkin opposes) and former president Donald Trump’s false claims of electoral fraud in the 2020 presidential election (McAuliffe denounces those claims; Youngkin indulges without fully embracing them).

The Texas law puts abortion “front and center in the race,” said Bob Holsworth, a veteran Richmond political analyst. “I expected that to occur with Mississippi, but now it’s been really accelerated because of Texas.”

Abortion is not an issue that most Virginia voters rank as a top priority. In an August Monmouth University Polling Institute survey, 4 percent of Virginia voters volunteered that traditional values or abortion were one of the two most important issues that the candidates for governor should talk about during the campaign. That included 6 percent of Republicans, 4 percent of independents and 1 percent of Democrats.

Abortion fell far behind issues such as the coronavirus pandemic (23 percent), education and public schools (18 percent), the economy (16 percent), jobs (14 percent) and health care (13 percent).

But the issue could take on more prominence now with the future of Roe more in doubt than it has been in decades, Holsworth said.

“Clearly, it’s something the Democrats believe will work to their benefit, largely because McAuliffe has been all over this,” Holsworth said, while also noting Youngkin’s more skittish response. “This really will require Youngkin to specify what his position is.”

Youngkin’s tricky dance with ‘election integrity’ complicates run for Virginia governor

Virginia Republicans and Democrats have taken turns over the years playing offense and defense on abortion policy. Republicans pushed a slew of abortion restrictions in 2012 when they controlled the state House of Delegates, Senate and Executive Mansion — including a bill that would have required women seeking abortions to first get an ultrasound.

The measure drew a national backlash when it became clear that in most cases, the procedure would require an invasive, vaginal probe. After getting skewered by late-night comics and “Saturday Night Live,” Republicans modified the bill to mandate an abdominal ultrasound instead, but for years afterward, statewide Democratic candidates successfully invoked it as proof that the GOP was waging a “war on women.” That rallying cry faded only as Trump emerged as a more powerful motivator for suburban women.

Republicans saw an opportunity to paint Democrats as extremists on abortion in January 2019, after an uproar over a late-term abortion bill introduced by Del. Kathy Tran (D-Fairfax). When a Republican lawmaker asked during a hearing whether the bill would allow for an abortion to occur when a woman is in labor and about to give birth, Tran said yes. She later said she “misspoke.”

Late-term abortions already were permitted under Virginia law when the mother’s life or health would be “substantially and irredeemably” harmed by continuing a pregnancy, as certified by three physicians. The bill would have removed the phrase “substantially and irredeemably,” and reduced the number of required physicians to one.

Gov. Ralph Northam (D) added to the furor while defending the bill in a radio interview, with remarks that critics took as an endorsement of infanticide. Northam, a pediatric neurologist, appeared to be talking about end-of-life care for a newborn that is “not viable,” but he has never clarified his remarks. He has called the infanticide allegation false and “disgusting.”

Youngkin links McAuliffe to the episode in an online ad, mixing video of Tran and Northam with audio of the former governor defending Tran’s “common-sense bill” in a radio interview. In the interview, McAuliffe had addressed only the part about the physicians, saying it made sense to reduce the number required to sign off, given the scarcity of doctors in rural areas.

Youngkin played up his opposition to abortion ahead of a highly competitive seven-way Republican nominating convention. And at his victory party in May, he told his supporters: “Friends, together, all of us, we will protect the life of every Virginia child, born and unborn.”

He went quiet on the topic soon after that, declining to say what abortion restrictions he would pursue if elected.

Youngkin goes mum on guns and abortion

Known as a “heartbeat ban,” the Texas law prohibits abortion after six weeks of pregnancy, the point at which a fetal heartbeat can be detected, and makes exceptions only for the mother’s life, not rape or incest. Considered one of the strictest measures in the nation, it took effect Sept. 1, the same day McAuliffe and Youngkin had their first face-to-face campaign encounter, at a Northern Virginia business conference.

McAuliffe jumped at the chance to weigh in, warning that a law like that in Virginia would threaten the health of women and the state’s “open and welcoming” business climate.

“I think you’ve just seen what’s happened in Texas,” he said. “I cannot tell you how dangerous this is for women. Dangerous. It is crippling for business.”

Asked afterward whether he would expand access to abortion as governor, McAuliffe said he thought state law on the subject was good as is. But he said he would like to enshrine Roe in the state Constitution in case the Supreme Court strikes it down.

Youngkin did not mention the Texas law or abortion during his remarks to the business group, and did not answer directly when reporters asked him afterward whether he would support similar legislation in Virginia.

“I’m pro-life,” he said. “I’ve said it from the beginning of this campaign. I’m pro-life. I believe in exceptions — in the case of rape, and in case of incest, in case the mother’s life is in jeopardy. I’m most focused on making sure that Terry McAuliffe’s extreme agenda, which promotes abortion, all the way up through and including birth, is not part of Virginia’s future.”

Youngkin appeared exasperated as reporters peppered him with questions about abortion at a business forum — just days after he rolled out a comprehensive tax-cut plan.

“I spent today talking about creating jobs, restoring excellence in our schools, and keeping Virginians safe from rising crime,” Youngkin tweeted later that day. “McAuliffe spent today fear-mongering about abortion.”

Karina Elwood, Emily Guskin and Gregory S. Schneider contributed to this report.