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Suburban women in Virginia likely to decide control of General Assembly

Two people are seen speaking to each other in the frame after an event.
Mechelle Hankerson
A voter speaks with Republican Del. Karen Greenhalgh (right). Greenhalgh is running in Virginia Beach’s 97th House District – one of the key suburban swing districts that will likely decide control of the General Assembly.

Read the original story on the WHRO News website.

Control in the state House of Delegates and the Senate will hinge on a few key races in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, Richmond and central Virginia Beach.

Virginia’s suburbs were reliably conservative areas where Republicans reigned for decades.

But women — specifically white women without college educations — are less loyal to political parties, making where many of them live political battlegrounds.

“I don't think we can overestimate the importance of these groups like suburban white women who do bounce back and forth between Republicans and Democrats or have in the past few elections,” said Leslie Caughell, who researches women voters at Virginia Wesleyan University.

Joe Biden carried the lion’s share of voters in places like Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Northern Virginia’s Stafford County during the 2020 presidential election.

Those same suburbs shifted in 2021 to propel Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin to victory.

Caughell says that swing happens for several reasons.

These women don’t vote for Democrats because they’re liberal; on the contrary, she said they’re typically moderate conservatives at their cores.

But white women are willing to support Democrats in part because they’re much more sensitive to the rhetoric used by party leaders.

“This voting group seems much more likely to say, ‘I'm going to buck my party here, acknowledging the fact that my values, my fundamental underlying values haven't changed, that I don't think this Republican Party is capturing my conservatism,’” Caughell said.

This is part of what pushed them away in recent years, as the notoriously crass Donald Trump held a stranglehold on the Republican Party.

“They find this kind of divisive political rhetoric more off-putting than do men,” Caughell said.

“Playing into the cultural issues in that way, you might be able to pull some people along, but you run the risk of pushing more people away then you pull into your camp.”

Political parties have taken note of this critical demographic. Caughell said she sees candidates “trying to make these elections about what we've traditionally understood to be women's issues.”

Primary among those issues: abortion. Virginia’s Democrats have framed this year’s election as a do-or-die to preserve abortion access in Virginia.

Meanwhile, Youngkin has been stumping to try to soften the image of Republicans’ abortion policies, reframing abortion bans as “limits” instead.

Republicans are also focusing on education issues, which was part of Youngkin’s winning formula in 2021. But Caughell said 2023 is a whole different ballgame as education policy discussions turned from school closures during covid to limiting access to certain books and learning material and rules around transgender students.

“I don't think these play quite as cleanly,” Caughill said. “That education issue has gotten to be a little bit more complicated than I would imagine Republicans hoped when they were putting that out there as a way of appealing to this group of voters.”