Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin would very much like to be considered a contender for the 2024 GOP presidential field. But to do that he’s got to build his credibility with social conservatives. To that end, he is attempting to restrict abortion access in one of the 26 states where abortion remains legal. But Virginia special-election voters just upended the plans of the high-profile Republican governor by electing a Democrat to a previously Republican legislative seat and solidifying the pro-choice majority in the state senate.
Coming off the 2022 election cycle, the Virginia vote sent a powerful signal that abortion rights will continue to be a definitional issue in the critical state legislative elections of 2023—and in the 2024 presidential election that is already gearing up.
Youngkin’s plan to enact a 15-week abortion ban stalled in December in the Virginia Senate, where Democrats retained narrow control. But concerns about a wavering Democratic member of the chamber had party leaders worrying about whether they could hold the line. As a result, last Tuesday’s special election for the Virginia Beach Senate seat—which came open after Republican state Senator Jen Kiggans was elected to the US House last fall—shaped up as a critical test of how the abortion issue would play in off-year elections in Virginia and other states.
When the votes were counted, what had been identified as “a Republican seat” flipped to pro-choice Democrat Aaron Rouse.
Rouse, a Virginia Beach City Council member and former Green Bay Packers player, had promised to oppose Youngkin’s ban, while the Republican he narrowly defeated, Kevin Adams, had signaled that he would support it. “When I was in the NFL, my job was to be the last line of defense. Right now, that’s what we need in Richmond,” Rouse declared in an ad for his campaign. “Women’s reproductive freedom is on the line and I’ll never back down.”
That stance was critical, explained Tarina Keene, the executive director of REPRO Rising Virginia.
“Reproductive rights and freedom in Virginia have been hanging by a tenuous thread, especially in the wake of Roe being overturned,” said Keene. “It all comes down to one vote and having Aaron Rouse added to the state Senate in this precarious time only helps shore up reproductive rights and freedom here in the commonwealth.”
Rouse’s win expanded the Democratic majority in the state Senate to 22-18, eliminating the prospect that Youngkin could cut a deal with a dissident Democrat to secure the ban. “Electing Aaron Rouse ensures that no abortion ban or restrictions will ever come to Gov. Youngkin’s desk this year,” explained Gianni Snidle, the communications director for the Virginia Democratic Senate Caucus.
The Virginia special election comes early in a year that will see tests of pro-choice sentiment in regularly scheduled elections and special elections across the country. Voters will determine control of the Virginia General Assembly and Senate, as well as the Louisiana, Mississippi, and New Jersey legislatures. They will also decide critical contests in states such as Wisconsin, where an April 4 special election for an open seat could strengthen the ability of legislative Democrats to sustain vetoes by Governor Tony Evers, one of the nation’s most ardently pro-choice governors.
Noting the results from last year, which saw four legislative chambers flip to the Democrats in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota—all states that elected pro-choice Democratic governors—Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee President Jessica Post pointed to the Virginia result as a harbinger of things to come.
“After a historic midterm year for state legislatures, Democrats are starting off the new year with yet another flip against a Republican agenda categorically out of step with voters,” said Post. “Not only was the Republican Party incapable of flipping a single chamber with historic headwinds on their side [in 2022], but now they are heading into the fight for the Virginia Senate down another seat.”