This Could Be the Most Important Democratic Primary of 2023

This Could Be the Most Important Democratic Primary of 2023

This Could Be the Most Important Democratic Primary of 2023

A scandal-scarred, anti-abortion state senator could help crush reproductive freedom in Virginia—unless his progressive challenger defeats him.


The partisan divide on reproductive rights has grown so wide that it is easy to forget that there are still some pro-choice Republicans and, yes, some anti-abortion Democrats. That reality is only rarely reflected in national debates. But it has real consequences at the state level—since, in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision overturning federal protections for abortion rights, that is where the fight for reproductive freedom is now playing out on a daily basis.

That’s especially true in Virginia, where Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin wants to ban most abortions after 15 weeks. Though Youngkin’s Republican allies control the state House of Delegates, Democrats retain a narrow 22-18 majority in the state Senate. “The truth is, as long as Senate Democrats have our majority, the brick wall will stand strong and these extreme bills will never pass,” says state Senator L. Louise Lucas, a veteran Democratic legislator who currently serves as president pro tempore.

But there’s a twist in Virginia. One Democratic senator, Joe Morrissey, has a record of voting against abortion rights and has signaled that he is open to working with Republicans to pass at least some restrictions on a woman’s right to choose. This year, all 40 of Virginia’s state Senate seats, along with 100 seats in the House of Delegates, are up for election. If Morrissey is reelected, and Republicans pick up just two seats in the Senate, Youngkin could have the votes he needs to enact any number of restrictions on reproductive rights.

That prospect has inspired what could turn out to be the most important primary challenge to a Democratic incumbent in 2023. Former Virginia state representative Lashrecse Aird is running against Morrissey in the state’s June 20 Democratic primary, with a blunt message that abortion rights is “absolutely a top issue” for voters in Virginia’s sprawling 13th Senate district.

The district—which includes the historic tobacco-processing center of Petersburg, its surrounding communities, and rural sections of south-central Virginia—leans Democratic. That means that if Aird beats Morrissey in the primary, abortion rights supporters will be in a significantly stronger position going into the fall contests for seats in a Senate chamber where legislative district lines have been redrawn based on the 2020 Census. With that in mind, Aird will this week launch a “Roe Not Joe” tour of the district to drive home the point that “the days when someone can be elected to office as a Democrat and then fail to stand up for us on an issue so important as abortion rights are long gone.”

Arguing that “Joe has held the Senate hostage on reproductive health care at a time when abortion rights are at stake,” Aird will begin her tour today, exactly one year after the leak that anticipated the Supreme Court’s anti-abortion ruling in the Dobbs decision. She’ll be joined by advocates at a series of events that will deliver her campaign’s message that she plans to “be a firewall for abortion right and against Glenn Youngkin.”

The Virginia primary is a test for Democrats on an issue that proved to be highly effective for the party in the 2022 midterm elections and in last month’s critical Wisconsin Supreme Court race, where support for abortion rights was a central theme of winning candidate Janet Protaswiecz. An Aird victory would provide another indication of the potency of reproductive rights. It would, in addition, make it clear that Democrats are united in support of abortion rights at a time when young voters in particular are looking for clarity on the issue.

Morrissey—a twice-disbarred lawyer who, in addition to his anti-abortion stance, has been hit by multiple public scandals during his career—complains about pro-choice Democrats who want to make abortion rights central in the primary contest. “Sadly,” he gripes, “if you don’t agree 100% with their position on abortion, then, you’re out.” The legislator, whom media outlets in Virginia identify as “a pro-life Democrat,” says he’s opposed to a complete ban on access to abortion, while trying to paint Aird as an extremist on the issue. But all six Democratic women in the Virginia Senate released a statement that ripped into Morrissey with a declaration that “one member of the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus has leveraged his votes on this issue as a cudgel against fellow caucus members.”

Lucas and Senators Mamie Locke, Janet Howell, Barbara Favola, Jennifer Boysko, and Ghazala Hashmi have all endorsed Aird. So, too, has US Representative Abigail Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat who last year won a swing-district reelection race in which she highlighted her pro-choice stance.

Abortion wasn’t the only issue in Spanberger’s 2022 race, and it’s not the only issue in Aird’s challenge to Morrissey this year. Aird’s also talking about her long history of working to increase education funding, strengthen anti-poverty initiatives, promote civil rights, and expand voting rights. But Aird has no qualms about arguing that its defense must be a top priority for elected Democrats.

“This race to me is not political, it’s personal,” she says. “There are so many people who are afraid about losing access to abortion rights. They need Democratic representation that is accountable to them, and I am ready to provide that representation.”

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