For decades, abortion policy was center stage in every race for governor of Virginia — an issue Democrats and Republicans alike used to turn out bedrock supporters and attack their opponents.

But as this fall’s campaign reaches its final two weeks, the politics of abortion has taken a twist: While abortion rights advocates embrace Democrat Terry McAuliffe as a firewall who would keep abortion legal in Virginia, antiabortion groups have made an unusual pivot, arguing that the issue they long made a focus of state politics might best be relegated to the sidelines.

“Abortion isn’t a top issue for Virginia voters,” said Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, one of the state’s leading conservative organizations and a longtime advocate for tightening restrictions on abortion. “McAuliffe is desperate to talk about anything other than jobs and the economy, so he’s focusing on a side issue.”

Cobb is not alone among Virginia conservatives in suddenly casting abortion as “a side issue.” Although McAuliffe has devoted as much TV advertising time to abortion as to any other issue, his Republican opponent, Glenn Youngkin — who opposes abortion except in cases of rape, incest or to save the life of the pregnant individual — barely mentions it in speeches and TV ads.

Youngkin has said little about abortion since he was caught on video in July admitting that he would avoid the issue during the fall campaign, but if elected would “start going on offense.”

And Virginia’s influential antiabortion groups have taken a more muted approach to their signature issue in this year’s campaign.

“We need to be realistic,” said Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, an antiabortion group. “Terry McAuliffe seems to think abortion is the key issue that motivates women voters. It’s not.”

Although her goal remains to make abortion illegal, a ban like the highly restrictive one Texas put in place this summer “is not on the table for Virginia,” Turner said. “It’s a red herring. We’re not going there. There just aren’t the votes in Virginia.”

That new reticence on the part of social conservatives strikes Democratic strategists as evidence that Republicans believe the issue hurts their candidate’s chances. “Youngkin has been attempting to hide his extreme antiabortion views because he knows Virginians don’t agree with his agenda,” said Christina Freundlich, McAuliffe’s campaign spokeswoman.

This week, McAuliffe is ramping up his emphasis on abortion, staging events in the state’s most populous areas to push suburban women and other abortion rights supporters to the polls. The campaign is stressing what it calls an urgent threat posed by the Texas ban on abortions after six weeks of pregnancy and the U.S. Supreme Court’s consideration this term of a case that could lead to overturning Roe v. Wade, the 1973 decision that found a constitutional right to abortion.

Some key Youngkin supporters argue that McAuliffe’s emphasis on abortion in the last days of the campaign means “he’s not sure he has his base, and he needs to scare them to get them to vote,” as Cobb put it.

But stressing abortion seems an obvious choice to many Democratic strategists, who credit the issue with swaying the results of several governor’s races in recent Virginia history, from Democrat Doug Wilder’s victory in 1989, when abortion dwarfed all other issues in voters’ ranking of their most important concerns, to 2017, when Gov. Ralph Northam defeated Republican Ed Gillespie with a barrage of TV ads showing women talking fearfully about Gillespie’s antiabortion stance.

Abortion is a major factor in 58 percent of Virginia voters’ decisions about this election, according to a CBS News poll conducted this month — running behind vaccination mandates, how schools teach about race and history, and taxes, the top three issues voters cited.

While Youngkin is drawing crowds to his rallies by focusing on parental angst over how race and history are taught in public schools, the prospect that the Supreme Court might overturn Roe v. Wade or that a Republican governor might seek to ban abortion in Virginia has not so far produced similar demonstrations of voter enthusiasm.

But among Democrats and independents, according to internal Democratic polling, abortion is right up there with gun regulation, health care and the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol as topics driving voters to the polls this fall.

“The threat to abortion rights is not theoretical anymore — it’s very real,” said Jamie Lockhart, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia, the abortion rights group’s political arm. “It might not be the issue they wake up and think about every day, but when they hear about the threat, it’s very motivating.”

In McAuliffe’s successful campaign for governor in 2013, thousands of people came out to rallies in support of abortion rights, said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia. But this week, McAuliffe’s abortion-focused events are roundtable discussions with advocates, not big public rallies.

“What’s deterring people from coming out and showing their concern is covid — the comfort level of getting out in public during covid,” said Keene, whose group is campaigning for McAuliffe through door-knocking, phone calls and mailers.

Keene remains confident that “reproductive rights will definitely help win the day” for McAuliffe. “Sometimes it takes going up to the edge for people to understand what’s really at risk,” she said. “And we are there. Have no doubt: Their agenda is to ban abortion and punish pregnant people.”

The Democrats’ renewed emphasis on the issue is evident from women showing up at early-voting centers wearing T-shirts saying “Don’t Texas my Virginia,” as well as McAuliffe’s TV ad reminding voters that Youngkin admitted this summer that he would avoid antiabortion rhetoric during the fall campaign.

The ad, one of McAuliffe’s most frequently aired spots, shows Youngkin being asked whether he would “take it to the abortionists” and responding that “I’m going to be really honest with you. The short answer is: In this campaign, I can’t. When I’m governor and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense. But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.”

He assured his questioner, an abortion rights activist posing as a Youngkin supporter, that “I will not go squishy on you.”

McAuliffe has had a field day with the video, making it the focus of ads and numerous speeches. “What you saw in that video,” he said, is that Youngkin “says one thing to one group and to some something else.”

Youngkin spokesman Matt Wolking said the video was “deceptively recorded” but “demonstrates that Glenn Youngkin says the same thing no matter who he is talking to, unlike Terry McAuliffe, who . . . decides what to say based on whatever poll is in front of him.”

In a statement provided by his campaign, Youngkin said: “My opponent wants to be the abortion governor. And I want to be the jobs governor.”

Youngkin presents himself to friendly audiences as a candidate who is fired up about matters dear to his party’s pro-Trump base — raising alarms about “election integrity” and race-
conscious teaching in public schools, objecting to mandates designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus — but he goes light on hot-button issues that have alienated suburban voters from past GOP candidates, especially including abortion.

Youngkin tries to flip the issue against McAuliffe. In the July video, Youngkin says that “I am staunchly, unabashedly pro-life, and the abortion issue is an issue that the Democrats use to divide us.”

At a September debate, Youngkin said he would not sign a Virginia version of the Texas law, which he called “unworkable and confusing.” The law allows anyone in Texas to sue doctors or others who facilitate an abortion after cardiac activity is detected in the womb.

Through the years, Democrats have repeatedly used the abortion debate to energize core supporters and win gubernatorial elections.

In 2005, when Tim Kaine, now Virginia’s junior senator in Washington, was running for governor, his Republican opponent, Jerry Kilgore, wouldn’t say whether he would sign a bill banning abortions if the Supreme Court overturned Roe. Kaine, by contrast, said that as a religious Catholic, he had a “faith-based opposition” to abortion but nonetheless promised to advocate for abortion rights. Kaine won handily.

Republican reticence about abortion in fall campaigns is not entirely new, either.

In 2009, Republican Bob McDonnell, a lifelong social conservative who as a legislator had introduced 35 bills to restrict access to abortions, won his race for governor despite Democrat Creigh Deeds’s barrage of TV ads portraying him as an extremist.

“I am pro-life, and I’m not shying away from that,” McDonnell said that year. But he repeatedly rebuffed questions about abortion, saying he stood a far stronger chance of winning votes, especially in the D.C. suburbs, by focusing more on jobs, transportation and gang crime than on hot-button issues such as abortion.

McDonnell’s calm, moderate campaign persona is echoed in many of Youngkin’s appearances this fall and in his TV ads showing a genial suburban dad shooting hoops. Youngkin makes no mention of abortion on the issues page of his campaign website.

McAuliffe turned to abortion as a primary issue in his previous campaign for governor in 2013, when he faced another vehement opponent of abortion, then-Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli. McAuliffe hammered away at Cuccinelli over Virginia Republicans’ passage of a bill that required most people seeking an abortion to first undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound. (The bill was later revised to require a noninvasive procedure.)

Portraying Cuccinelli as a right-wing zealot who opposed abortion, contraception, same-sex marriage and government-
assisted health care, McAuliffe won the female vote by a margin of 58 percent to 34 percent, on his way to a narrow victory.

This year, McAuliffe presents himself on his campaign site as “a brick wall in defense of Virginians’ reproductive freedoms,” but his primary strategy has been to link Youngkin with former president Donald Trump.

“The way we can talk about abortion is very different from eight years ago because Donald Trump is a factor now,” Freund­lich said. “Our message is that Youngkin’s going to bring Donald Trump’s abortion agenda to Virginia.”

For Youngkin, framing the abortion issue is also complex, even if a majority of Republicans tell pollsters they support tightening restrictions on abortion rights. To win statewide, Republicans in Virginia must run strongly among independents and suburban voters.

Youngkin is running slightly behind McAuliffe in nearly all recent polls, but a large majority of Virginians tell pollsters they believe abortion should be legal, either in any circumstance or with some restrictions. In a recent poll by CBS News, almost 60 percent of Virginia voters supported keeping abortion legal.

Despite McAuliffe’s effort to tie Youngkin to Trump — especially on opposition to vaccination and mask mandates and on the former president’s false allegations of election fraud — an analysis by Kyle Kondik and J. Miles Coleman of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics last week concluded that “Youngkin has done at least a passable job of straddling the various wings of the Republican Party, giving clear nods to the Trumpier wing by talking about so-called ‘election integrity’ while emphasizing less hot-button issues in his advertising, like repealing a state grocery tax.”

Still, on Youngkin’s right flank, the pressure to take on social issues remains strong. At a rally in Frederick County this month, Del. Bill Wiley (R-Winchester) introduced Youngkin saying that his campaign was about “guns, God and country” — an update of the longtime Virginia conservative campaign formula that politicians dubbed “guns, gays and God.”

And some antiabortion activists still want the Republican nominee to throw himself wholeheartedly behind their cause. Youngkin has made only “a tepid commitment to protect preborn life,” offering “lackluster policy designed to accomplish almost nothing,” Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America, a Fredericksburg-based group, said in a Washington Post op-ed. Abortion, she said, remains “a litmus test for a candidate’s willingness to fight for the weak and defenseless.”