In Virginia, 2019 dawned as the year the Democrats could take back the General Assembly for the first time in a generation. In 2015, a beaten-down party fielded only 56 candidates for the state’s 100-seat House of Delegates, letting the GOP win 66. Two years later, a fiery surge of activism in response to Donald Trump’s presidency led to 88 Democrats running. That November, they almost took the House, electing 15 pro-choice delegates, including 11 women. But in January, party leaders botched their messaging about an abortion-rights bill, and suddenly the state’s anti-Trump political momentum was in grave danger of being reversed.
Virginia, you’ll recall, is the state where Republicans tried to force women to undergo an invasive transvaginal ultrasound in order to get an abortion (even though involuntary sexual penetration constitutes rape under federal law); that effort failed in 2012. The state has restrictive abortion laws, especially for later abortions, requiring three doctors to certify that the pregnancy would “likely” kill the woman or “substantially and irremediably” impair her physical or mental health. Virginia law forces women seeking a later abortion to leave the state, advocates say. There have been only two such procedures since 2000. In January, first-term Democrat Kathy Tran introduced legislation that would, among other things, reduce the number of doctors required from three to one and remove the words “substantially and irremediably” from the law. The bill had broad support from pro-choice groups.
But in a committee hearing where opponents aggressively misrepresented the bill, Tran slipped up and seemed to say the legislation might allow abortion up to the moment of birth. She quickly corrected herself, saying, “I should have said [that] infanticide is not allowed in Virginia.” Her bill failed to get out of committee. Days later, discussing the bill on a radio show, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam attempted to explain what would happen to a baby born with a fatal condition, saying, “The infant would be resuscitated if that’s what the mother and the family desired, and then a discussion would ensue between the physicians and the mother.” Like Tran, Northam immediately clarified his point. The “discussion” of care that he referred to would in no way include the option of killing the terminally ill newborn—which is and will remain illegal.
But it didn’t matter. Virginia Republicans, who lost ground in 2017 and had little hope for a better showing in 2019, now had a brand-new issue: “infanticide.” At the end of January, the Susan B. Anthony List, a national anti-abortion group, announced “a six-figure campaign” in Virginia to beat “abortion extremists” in the fall races. The story quickly went national. Trump famously claimed that Tran’s bill would mean doctors could “allow a newborn baby to come out into the world and wrap the baby and make the baby comfortable and then talk to the mother and talk to the father and then execute the baby. Execute the baby.” The weekend before the election, at a rally in Tupelo, Mississippi, the delusional president went further, claiming, “The governor of Virginia executed a baby…after birth!” Amazingly, barely any major news outlets covered Trump’s insane lie about Northam.
Virginia Democrats and abortion rights supporters scrambled, afraid that the issue would hurt them come November. “What was worrisome was our electeds had not been educated to talk about this,” says Ilyse Hogue of NARAL Pro-Choice America. But then came Election Day, when the Democrats won six more seats to flip the House of Delegates—a 21-seat gain over two cycles—and an additional two to take the Senate, giving them full control of the state government. (They already held the governor’s, lieutenant governor’s, and attorney general’s offices.) All nine of the female delegates elected in 2017 who ran for re-election won easily, including Tran, who survived the backlash against her bill by a 20-point margin. “The Virginia elections showed that reproductive freedom is a powerful electoral force working in Democrats’ favor,” says Kristin Ford of NARAL Pro-Choice America, which endorsed 56 candidates in the Virginia races. “When candidates run on abortion access, they win,” said Alexis McGill Johnson of Planned Parenthood after the election.
Unfortunately, not all of the Democratic candidates won. Virginia Beach Delegate Cheryl Turpin lost her race to move to the state Senate to a female former Navy pilot and nurse practitioner who falsely attacked her for supporting “infanticide.” In the race’s closing weeks, Turpin, along with Delegates Debra Rodman (also running for a state Senate seat) and Elizabeth Guzman (running for reelection), were targeted by ads recycling the “infanticide” lie. Guzman prevailed, but Rodman, like Turpin, lost.
In a race as close as Turpin’s, one reproductive-rights advocate conceded that “it’s possible” the attacks played a role. On the other hand, in the race for a House of Delegates seat for part of Turpin’s Senate district, incumbent Kelly Fowler survived the “infanticide” attacks and ads calling her “bad for women,” winning by 9 points.
Despite the overall good news from Virginia, Republicans are “going to keep at it” in 2020, warns Hogue. GOP candidates have already used the “infanticide” attack on Democrats even in states that weren’t debating later abortion laws, and advocates expect them to continue. So it’s worth looking more closely at the lessons from the reassuringly large number of pro-choice candidates in Virginia who survived these attacks—as well as those who lost. The tale of two Virginia Beach races tells us a lot about how candidates can navigate the issue, even in a region that was until recently as red as a MAGA hat.
With at least nine military installations in its metropolitan area, Virginia Beach has been a GOP stronghold for decades. But the same demographic forces threatening the Republican Party elsewhere in the state—a rising number of people of color and the alienation of educated suburban women—are turning the region purple, if not blue. Still, Democrats were concerned about how the abortion issue would play in the area. For example, Pat Robertson’s conservative Regent University sits squarely in Turpin’s district.
After the initial shock in January, Virginia Democrats and pro-choice groups went into overdrive to combat the “infanticide” lie. This was the first lesson: “You have to respond to the attack and debunk the false claim,” says Ford. According to multiple sources, the best messaging asserted that infanticide is illegal and that abortions after 21 weeks—the later-pregnancy procedure that the right would have you think is the norm—account for roughly 1 percent of pregnancy terminations, almost always because of severe fetal anomaly or a serious threat to the health of the pregnant woman. The bottom line, Ford says, is that “you can’t just duck and cover.”
Turpin did not duck and cover, nor did Fowler. Turpin was running in a state Senate district that Trump carried in 2016 (though it has been trending more Democratic in the two elections since). But Turpin, a high school science teacher, says she was comfortable explaining why she supported the Tran bill’s provisions, especially reducing the number of doctors required to sign off on a later abortion from three to one. “In Southwest Virginia, you might only have one or two obstetricians in a county,” Turpin said in late October. “Where do you get that third doctor? Ohio? West Virginia? Does he or she Skype in?” Then came Tran’s and Northam’s awkward remarks and the resulting GOP frenzy. “It was scary to be up there at the time, to be honest,” Turpin admitted. “All that national stuff trickled down to us. Practicality lost to rhetoric.”
Still, she maintained her stance, going on television with an ad widely praised for its candor on the issue. She called her opponent, Jen Kiggans, “an extreme Republican politician who opposes abortion” and highlighted Kiggans’s ties to a so-called crisis pregnancy center, a facility intended to trick women into thinking it’s an abortion clinic in order to coerce them into continuing their pregnancies. “We made sure that every voter knew that Cheryl was for choice,” says Daniel McNamara, Turpin’s campaign manager. And while Kiggans ran as a staunch foe of abortion in her Republican primary this past spring—telling a right-wing talk radio host that “In Virginia…we are fighting a group of Democrats and leftist-liberals who want to promote infanticide”—she moderated her stance during the general election, pitching herself as a nurse practitioner who would help women find alternatives to abortion. She even removed a reference to “infanticide” on her website.
Compared with the state Senate district that Turpin sought to represent, Fowler’s corner of Virginia Beach, where the population is 42 percent nonwhite, is more liberal, and it went for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Visibly pregnant with her third child, Fowler seemed undaunted by the GOP’s attacks as we sat in her kitchen talking about the race 10 days before the election. “Infanticide? Sure. I really welcome that charge, being pregnant out to here,” she said. “How am I anti-woman? I have two daughters and a third on the way. Try it!”
The week before the election, Fowler’s opponent hit her with a nasty TV ad accusing her of trying to silence two women who said this year that Lieutenant Governor Justin Fairfax had sexually assaulted them. A survivor of sexual abuse herself, Fowler struck back at the ad in multiple ways, including by publicly telling her personal story for the first time, exclusively to The Nation. She also aired a spot that put her abortion rights stance front and center. “Shannon Kane even opposes access to an abortion when a doctor determines the patient’s life is at risk,” the narrator intoned. “As a mother of two girls with a third on the way, [Fowler] knows personal decisions should be made by women and their doctors,” the ad continued. (Watch this and other ads addressing abortion rights run in Virginia during the campaign here.)
By the closing weeks of the campaign, when she went to canvass for Turpin and other Virginia Beach Democrats, the intensity of the reaction to Tran’s bill had subsided, Delegate Jennifer Carroll Foy said. “These issues are just not coming up when I knock doors,” said Foy, who easily won her Northern Virginia race. Then in the last weeks of the campaign, Kiggans went up with an ad reviving the “infanticide” claim, spending more money on advertising than she did earlier in the race. Turpin replied with an ad of her own (the one that called Kiggans “extreme”). NARAL Pro-Choice America backed up Turpin with an ad rebutting the infanticide charge, versions of which the group also ran to support Guzman and Rodman against the same last-minute attack. The ad calmly explained that “only 1 percent of abortions occur after 21 weeks of pregnancy” and “if a woman’s health or life is at risk or it’s clear a fetus won’t survive, parents have no good choices” and that the “murder of any person, including newborns, is already illegal.”
On election night, Turpin fell short by about 500 votes. Fowler won by 9 percentage points.
Making sense of these different results is tough, but for most Democrats, it comes down to demographics. Turpin’s state Senate district, which is two-thirds white, still trends red, while Fowler’s state House district is strongly trending blue, thanks in part to its large and rising nonwhite population. In Turpin’s old House district, her former student and campaign buddy Democrat Alex Askew won. The rest of her Senate territory was tougher.
But no one on Turpin’s team says the abortion issue cost her the election. “Even though we lost, I don’t think it was because we ran proudly on a woman’s right to choose,” McNamara says. “In fact, I think our TV ads and mailers on the choice issue are what kept the race essentially tied.” Turpin agrees, saying, “This is still a Trump district, and to come that close… I’m really proud of what we did. And I do think we reached those moderate, educated women who still believe women need and deserve to make their own life choices.” Indeed, early polls showed that voters in her district favored reproductive rights almost two to one.
“I think Republicans overreached on abortion in Virginia, and I just don’t think people believed them,” says Geri Prado of Emily’s List. Had the infanticide ads worked, “the outcome would have looked very different on election night.” Carolyn Fiddler, who used to work for the Virginia Democratic Party and is now the communications director for Daily Kos, points to Tran’s overwhelming win as evidence that the abortion issue didn’t hurt the Democrats and in some districts might have helped. “In an election where Dems were really motivating their voters, abortion was another issue getting them to the polls,” Fiddler says. Virginia Democratic Party chair Susan Swecker says that outside deep-red southwestern Virginia, “the Republican attacks on abortion fell completely flat,” especially with “suburban women in Virginia Beach.”
Fowler says she firmly believes that running as an advocate of reproductive choice helped her win. “My opponent used women as political pawns. My campaign team and I felt strongly that we needed to set the record straight that I was the only candidate that would stand up for Virginia women,” she said a week after her victory. “Voters sent a clear message that they supported abortion rights and rejected my opponent’s political tricks.”
As someone who has lived through decades of Democrats running away from abortion—whether by supporting the Hyde Amendment, which bans the public funding of most abortions for poor women, or by piously insisting that abortion should be safe, legal and rare—I found it bracing to see so many women now running on the issue. Turpin and Fowler, among others, used the term “abortion” in their advertising rather than relying exclusively on euphemisms like “choice” and “reproductive health.” The state that tried to pass a transvaginal ultrasound law just seven years ago now has a General Assembly and governor supportive of reproductive rights.
National advocates hope the Virginia results embolden other candidates to stand up against false claims and proudly tout their reproductive rights credentials. “They expected their lies to go unanswered,” Hogue says. “Their strategy doesn’t work if we call them out on their lies.” She points to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll indicating that a majority of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents would like to hear more—not less—about reproductive health issues in political campaigns. “Republicans are fearmongering dangerous myths to gin up their base, but our base is ginned up on this, and independents are standing with us, too,” says Stephanie Schriock of Emily’s List. There are still exceptions—Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards, a prominent anti-abortion Democrat, won reelection in mid-November after signing a six-week abortion ban. But the days of consultants cautioning Democrats not to speak out about abortion rights are mostly over.
Advocates are counting on Virginia’s new Democratic majorities to take action on abortion rights, at a minimum by rolling back the restrictions passed by the far-right legislature over the previous eight years. That would include the requirement that most Virginia abortion seekers receive state-mandated “counseling” and a medically unnecessary ultrasound and then wait an additional 24 hours before getting the procedure. Many would also like to see a new version of the Tran bill, supported by improved messaging. “Our vision is to make Virginia a safe haven for abortion care and access,” says Tarina Keene, the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.
Fiddler says she’s excited about the January session. “To be fair, now that [the Democrats] are finally in the majority, there’s a long list of bills they want to take up right out of the gate,” she says. “But there are so many newcomers, I think they will have a dramatic impact on policy, including on abortion,” she adds. “The question is, how bold do they want to be in spending down their political capital? I hope they’re very bold. Parties don’t stay in power by tiptoeing around the issues that got them there.”