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Read more VPM News coverage of the historic 2023 elections in Virginia.

Virginia Republicans aim to thread the needle on abortion

Gov Youngkin gives remarks
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Gov. Glenn Youngkin gives remarks during a Secure Your Vote Rally on Monday, October 23, 2023 in Glen Allen, Virginia.

A recent Christopher Newport University poll showed support for maintaining abortion care in Virginia.

Onstage in Henrico County, Gov. Glenn Youngkin told supporters they had work to do.

“Holding the House … . Flipping the Senate!”

Youngkin touched on a variety of political issues during the Monday rally, but didn’t speak about abortion, one of the most important issues for the Republican base. It’s indicative of the significant political headwinds facing GOP candidates on the issue.

“Republicans are trying to keep an anti-abortion base energized, while recognizing that moderate voters and Democratic voters are largely in favor of abortion access,” said Claire McKinney, a political science professor at William & Mary who studies the medical field’s effect on abortion politics.

A Christopher Newport University poll released earlier this month showed wide support for maintaining abortion care in Virginia: Forty-nine percent of the state’s likely voters support maintaining laws while 23% support fewer restrictions. In the poll, 24% said they would like to see more restrictions.

One of the candidates Youngkin has stumped for is state Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, an incumbent Republican OB-GYN, who also spoke Monday. She’s facing off against Democratic Del. Schuyler Van Valkenberg, a high school teacher.

Dunnavant said she is upfront about her position on abortion: She favors an end to abortions after 15 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest, the life of the mother and severe fetal anomalies. In January, she voted against a bill supported by Youngkin that sought to ban abortions after 15 weeks, because it didn’t have an exception for fetal anomalies.

Dunnavant argued that this is not a “ban,” including in campaign ads, instead pitching her policies as a compromise in line with her constituents’ beliefs. It is similar messaging to an ad paid for by Youngkin’s PAC, which claimed “there is no ban.”

Senator Siobhan Dunnavant gives remakrs
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Senator Siobhan Dunnavant gives remarks during a Secure Your Vote Rally on Monday, October 23, 2023 in Glen Allen, Virginia.

“We've been debating this a long time,” Dunnavant said. “The way you can get to a point where we actually can move on and do other things together, is to find a place where we can get consensus.”

McKinney said the timelines that would be instituted by these proposed restrictions are not based on scientific consensus. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists said that best health care is free from political interference.

“The arbitrariness of these lines has more to do with pushing a new consensus on what are really extreme bans,” said McKinney. She said a ban at six weeks would affect almost all abortion care. And a ban at 15 weeks would most affect those who have difficulty accessing healthcare — such as those who are poor, live in rural areas or are in situations of intimate partner violence.

Riley Shaia, a Republican running for the House of Delegates in another Henrico district differs from her party: She doesn’t support new abortion restrictions.

“I'm not in favor of further restricting women's rights,” she said. “I think we need to do a better job of providing other options to women, however … I just simply can't condone the unfettered access that the Democrat Party has to abortion.”

Shaia didn’t directly answer a question about whether she would vote against new restrictions or sit out a vote.

Her Democratic opponent, Del. Rodney Willett, said the GOP will vote to restrict abortion access regardless.

Riley Shaia gives remarks
Shaban Athuman
VPM News
Riley Shaia, a candidate for the house of Delegate, gives remarks during a Secure Your Vote Rally on Monday, October 23, 2023 in Glen Allen, Virginia.

“There will never be a vote to protect abortion access from the Republican Party. There'll be many votes to take it away,” he said before canvassing earlier this month.

Both Dunnavant and Shaia sought to portray their opponents as radicals who want to expand abortion access. Dunnavant said Van Valkenburg “supported a bill that would have made it easier to have an abortion up until the moment of birth.” The Democrat co-sponsored a 2019 bill that would have allowed third-trimester abortion procedures to be performed outside of hospitals. It ultimately failed.

The Virginia Public Access Project — a nonpartisan election information website — lists Dunnavant’s district, SD 16, and Shaia’s, HD 58, as having a Democratic lean.

Rich Anderson, the head of the Virginia GOP, said those districts are key to control of the Virginia legislature.

He also said Youngkin perceives his proposal for a 15-week ban as a real possibility with Republican majorities.

“I don't think you, me or any citizen will see a bait and switch if there are Republican majorities in both the House and Senate,” Anderson said. “He said 15 weeks. I think he'd take it to the bank.”

Disclosure: VPM Media Corp. partnered with ChamberRVA on debates for Virginia House District 58 and Senate District 16. These debates were between the Democratic and Republican candidates in each race — VPM News and VPM News Focal Point staff moderated both.

Dominion Energy sponsored ChamberRVA's debate events; Dominion Energy is also a VPM donor.

None of the VPM News staff who worked on the ChamberRVA/VPM debates were involved in the reporting or production of this article.

Jahd Khalil covers Virginia state politics for VPM News.