Anti-abortion zeal among rural GOP lawmakers may be toxic to Republicans running in suburbs

July 18, 2022 12:02 am

Anti-abortion demonstrators march down East Main Street near the Capitol in Richmond in 2021. (Robert Zullo/ Virginia Mercury)

You can bite off more than is good for you. That’s true whether you’re ordering a full slab of pork ribs at a Danville barbecue joint or pandering to your base in politics.

Stridently anti-abortion Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly would do well to keep that in mind as they trip over one another in a volatile social environment rushing to introduce legislation that would effectively ban abortion in the commonwealth after the U.S. Supreme Court reversed Roe v. Wade last month.

Proposals from the GOP in Virginia are all over the map, from Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s opening proffer to restrict abortion to, say, the first 15 to 20 weeks of pregnancy to Republican legislators clamoring to shut down abortions from the instant of conception, no exceptions.

Youngkin has adapted his message to his audiences. In a videoconference with the Family Foundation of Virginia, he told members of the anti-abortion group restive over his idea of allowing abortions as late as 20 weeks that he would press for much stricter laws should the GOP take over the state Senate next year.

Then again, Youngkin has been slippery on abortion since his candidacy last year when he downplayed his position on abortion publicly but was recorded on the downlow telling progressive activists posing as abortion foes that he “would start going on offense” if he won the election and gets a Republican legislature.

In an interview with CBS  “Face the Nation” host Robert Costa a little over a week ago, he twice pirouetted around Costa’s direct question of whether the governor would support a total abortion ban consistent with his belief that life begins at conception.

It’s not just state legislators who are weighing in. U.S. Rep. Bob Good, who represents Virginia’s 5th District, called for a no-exceptions statewide ban and chided fellow Republicans who would compromise on anything less.  Abortion, he declared, “should not be negotiated, it should be eliminated.”

And it’s not just legislation that Republicans are pursuing.

Multiple outlets have reported that Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, is recommending to Youngkin that he withhold funding from hospitals at state-supported universities that provide abortion services, even though the procedure is fully legal in Virginia. And the Richmond Times-Dispatch quoted LaRock as saying that Youngkin is “paying close attention” to his request.

Youngkin’s press secretary, Macaulay Porter, declined to address whether the governor was specifically considering LaRock’s suggestion. In text messages from Buchanan County where Youngkin viewed flash flood devastation on Friday, she wrote: “the governor’s office has heard from several legislators on the issue of abortion.”

That Republicans are now, as Youngkin said, “going on offense” in trying to pare back abortion access after last month’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision is unsurprising. Some states dominated by GOP governors and legislatures were primed and ready before the ruling, having already passed “trigger laws” that would outlaw abortion in those states as soon as the Supreme Court ruled.

Until January, when a Republican majority overtook the House of Delegates and Youngkin succeeded Gov. Ralph Northam, Democrats held utter control of policymaking in Virginia and, in their two years of partisan hegemony, they repealed many abortion restrictions the GOP imposed over two prior decades. Republicans, particularly those representing culturally and politically conservative rural districts, made it clear they plan to roll back the clock.

But to the 1920s?

Republican lawmakers from outside Virginia’s vast eastern swath of suburbia have nothing to lose doubling, even tripling down on abortion prohibitions. While Youngkin supports exemptions for victims of rape and incest or to protect a woman’s life imperiled by a pregnancy, a good many Republicans don’t. Good, who favors “no exceptions,”  is among them.

There was a time when rape and incest exceptions were accepted standards of compassion among most Republicans. Rigid absolutism on abortion, driven by the party’s hard-right conservative base – those who dominate primaries – has since gripped the GOP. Recent examples abound.

Yesli Vega, the Republican nominee challenging Democratic Rep. Abigail Spanberger for her 7th District seat in Virginia, was caught on a recording last month dismissing the likelihood of women becoming pregnant from rape. It’s essentially the same medically discredited claim that ended the career of Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., in 2012. Vega, a police officer, said on the recording that she had “worked one case where, as a result of a rape, the young woman became pregnant.”

When a 10-year-old Ohio rape victim had to go to neighboring Indiana to end her pregnancy because Ohio’s new abortion ban grants no rape exception, even for a child in elementary school, GOP elected officials and right-wing media called it a lie. Then authorities arrested a 27-year-old man and arraigned him last week in the attack on the child. U.S. Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, deleted a tweet labeling the claim false, but refused to apologize for it.

In Mississippi, the Republican speaker of the state House of Representatives, Philip Gunn, said it should be illegal for a girl of 12 to terminate a pregnancy arising from molestation by her father or uncle. Mississippi’s abortion law allows rape and life-of-mother exemptions but, pointedly, not one for incest. Gunn opposes an incest exception.

Republican North Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, in a CNN interview defending her state’s anti-abortion trigger law with no exception for pediatric pregnancies, dissembled when host Dana Bash asked her if a 10-year-old girl should be forced to carry a rapist’s fetus to term. She condemned the man charged in the crime, noted that her state’s law allows exceptions only for a mother’s life, and said she opposes further exemptions.

State and national polls have long shown that majorities support a right to legal abortions. But the issue is nuanced, not binary, as indicated in a statewide Roanoke College poll from May. Fifty-three percent of respondents said abortion should be legal some of the time compared with just 35 percent who said it should be legal in all cases. Only 11 percent said it should be illegal in all circumstances. The poll, conducted days after POLITICO published a leaked draft opinion revealing that the Supreme Court was poised to end half a century of federal legal protection for abortions, found that 57 percent disagreed with the decision.

Years of polling shows that the more extreme abortion policy gets – whether it be banning the procedure totally or allowing it almost up to birth – the less support it has. The U.S. electorate’s vast majority prefers a measured middle ground.

Frothing-at-the-mouth anti-abortion fervor may work for rural legislators. But their rhetoric doesn’t stop at their district boundaries. What may earn them a pat on the back in rural Virginia is toxic to Republicans in suburban or exurban swing districts for U.S. House seats this year and state legislative seats in 2023.

Abortion alone is unlikely to determine outcomes either of those years. A troubled economy with the worst inflation in more than 40 years along with President Joe Biden’s plunging popularity favors the GOP, certainly this year. But the issues of abortion and gun control will carry extraordinary motivational power this fall, particularly among Democrats given the Supreme Court’s decisions to cripple abortion rights and loosen gun restrictions, even as the country averages almost two mass shootings per day so far this year.

It’s valid to note that abortion rights had marginal sway in previous elections, including last year’s, perhaps because the threat to those rights was hypothetical.

This year, at least in Virginia, it’s existential.




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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow on Mastodon: @[email protected]