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Far From Texas, The Virginia Governor's Race Will Test How Abortion Motivates Voters

Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat running for a second term, answers questions from the media after touring Whole Woman's Health of Charlottesville on Sept. 9. He's working to rally voters in response to Texas' restrictive new abortion law.
Former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat running for a second term, answers questions from the media after touring Whole Woman's Health of Charlottesville on Sept. 9. He's working to rally voters in response to Texas' restrictive new abortion law.

Morgan Byrd said that had it not been for the restrictive new Texas abortion law, she probably wouldn't have signed up to volunteer to canvass for Planned Parenthood.

"I wish I could say that I would have, but no — this is really the far stretch that's kind of encouraging me to stand up more," she said. "This is telling me I need to be out there. I need to be spreading the word."

Byrd was part of a small group of volunteers who met outside a cafe in Arlington, Va., this month to learn about canvassing for the abortion-rights group.

Early voting is already underway in Virginia's election, ahead of Election Day in November, and at the top of the ticket is the governor's race — the first major competitive contest since Texas' new abortion restrictions went into effect. For Democrats, it's also a major test of how much opposition to that law might motivate voters, even if they don't live in Texas, ahead of next year's elections, where control of Congress will be decided.

The Virginia race pits former Democratic Gov. Terry McAuliffe against Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin, the former CEO of the Carlyle Group private equity firm.

The Texas law has made abortion a bigger issue than it already was in the campaign. Abortion-rights opponents have been displeased with outgoing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.

Then, a July video posted by a website called the American Independent raised the temperature of the state's abortion debate. It shows Youngkin telling a woman posing as an abortion-rights opponent that talking about restricting abortion will make winning harder.

"When I'm governor and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense," he said. "But as a campaign topic, sadly, that in fact won't win my independent votes that I have to get."

McAuliffe has plastered the video of Youngkin across local television markets in campaign ads.

Democrats want to talk abortion rights. For Republicans, it's the economy

McAuliffe has emphasized his support of abortion rights and said he would sign a law making it easier to get a third-trimester abortion if the patient's life is in danger.

Youngkin, meanwhile, has said he wouldn't sign a law like the one in Texas, which bans abortions after about six weeks and furthermore rewards citizens for successfully filing suit against people who break that law. He also dodged a question about whether he'd sign a "fetal heartbeat" bill but did say that he supports a "pain threshold bill." Those types of bills ban abortion after 20 weeks.

And both candidates have worked to paint each other's positions as extreme, a logical tactic given that Americans' views on abortion largely exist somewhere between the two furthest poles in the debate. A plurality of Americans, 48%, believe abortion should be legal in some circumstances, according to Gallup. Meanwhile, around one-third believe it should always be legal, and one-fifth believe it should always be illegal.

However, their tactics differ in the fact that Youngkin is not embracing the issue as much as McAuliffe.

"It speaks to a pretty familiar idea in politics that the side that feels more threatened by something is probably the one that gets more motivation out of it," said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia. "And so the side that maybe feels more threatened that the abortion status quo is going to change is the Democrats right now."

Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin bags groceries for a customer during a campaign stop at Hispanic-owned supermarket Todos on Sept. 15 in Woodbridge, Va. Youngkin is trying to make inflation a focus of the campaign, pledging to repeal Virginia's grocery tax.
Alex Wong / Getty Images
Virginia Republican gubernatorial candidate Glenn Youngkin bags groceries for a customer during a campaign stop at Hispanic-owned supermarket Todos on Sept. 15 in Woodbridge, Va. Youngkin is trying to make inflation a focus of the campaign, pledging to repeal Virginia's grocery tax.

The types of events the candidates have been holding show how they're attempting to frame the race. McAuliffe toured a Charlottesville abortion clinic just over a week after Texas' law went into effect.

"This is so un-American. This is pitting neighbors against neighbors, friends against friends. It is just outrageous," he said. "And that can come here to Virginia."

Youngkin, meanwhile, has been striving to make the race about the economy, and inflation in particular, which he emphasized as he greeted shoppers at a grocery store in Woodbridge.

"One of the things I want to do if I'm elected governor is I want to eliminate the grocery tax," he said as he greeted a shopper at the bakery counter.

"Amen," the man responded.

The state's 2.5% grocery tax has become a centerpiece of Youngkin's campaign. Highlighting inflation is a tactic other Republicans appear primed to use as well in their midterm races.

A tight race in a state that has been trending Democratic

Youngkin is keeping the race competitive in a state that has become reliable for Democrats. A new poll from The Washington Post and the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University found Youngkin and McAuliffe nearly tied among likely voters.

Abortion tends to be an important topic to a lot of voters, but it's the most important topic to only a small share — that latest poll from the Post finds that 9% of voters have abortion as their top issue.

But that small share matters in a tight race, says Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, which advocates against abortion rights.

"When you have a race as tight as this and we motivate the pro-life vote to get out [and] do what they can do, the Democrats should be afraid," she said. "Because that's going to matter in this election."

Then again, abortion can motivate a voter even without it being the person's top issue. Which brings us back to Morgan Byrd, the new Planned Parenthood canvasser. NPR asked her what she cares about most in this election:

"I'd say for the state of Virginia, it's probably not reproductive rights, because I have a little bit more faith in them and our leaders," she said. "So I'd say maybe things like climate change and things like that."

But it was abortion rights that got her out to volunteer. And still more galvanizing abortion decisions could be on the way, right in the middle of the midterm campaign. Next year, the conservative Supreme Court is set to rule on a Mississippi abortion ban.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.