With abortion rights and parental rights prominent in recent Virginia news, the spillover of chaos in Congress may not be as big a deal in the state’s legislative races as the prospects of a federal government shutdown might have been. But the shocking ouster of Representative Kevin McCarthy as Speaker of the House did highlight the dangers of populist extremism from the right within the Republican Party. Complicating matters a bit is the $2 million donation to Governor Youngkin’s Spirit of Virginia PAC from an American billionaire associated as a major investor with the Chinese TikTok.
A substantial portion of state legislative races in Virginia appear to be very competitive. What is at stake is which party will control a majority out of the 100 seats in the House of Delegates (currently Republican) and – most significantly – out of the 40 seats in the Senate (currently Democratic). And yet, no one is challenging the apparent fairness of the redistricting that has contributed to the unusually large number of open seats; polling has continued to report an even split among voters in support for Republicans or Democrats; huge sums of money are going into these races; and the various state-wide pundits all seem to acknowledge that the competition is fierce. Given the Republican control, however, of the governorship and the assumption that Republicans will continue to have a majority of the seats in the House (in spite of the unusual number of open seats in this election), the suspense has been and continues to be on whether the Democrats will retain their slight majority in the Senate.
The central campaign issue, then, is abortion rights, especially for the Democrats. That is to say, the Democrats are emphasizing the importance of their Senate majority as a bulwark against cutting back the abortion rights in state law that had been enacted prior to the US Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization. In that 2022 ruling, the Supreme Court reversed its previous ruling in Roe v. Wade and took away the constitutional right to abortion. This has resulted in conservative state legislatures banning or drastically restricting the right to abortion, including in all the Southern states except Virginia. Governor Youngkin has proposed comparable restrictions (banning abortions after 15 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest and saving the life of the mother) that were rejected by the Democratic Senate in 2023 but that he has cited as a rallying cry for voters to support Republicans in the November elections.
Democrats have argued that their control of the Senate is the only way to protect abortion rights in Virginia. Governor Youngkin, on the other hand, has launched a $1.4 million ad push financed by his Spirit of Virginia PAC claiming that the Democrats are falsely claiming that Republicans would enact an outright ban on abortions and that Democrats don’t want any limits on abortions. Democrats are asserting that Republican candidates are on record in support of a ban and that even Governor Youngkin has implied a willingness to support even greater restrictions than the proposal he had put forward in the latest session of the General Assembly.
Other issues are in the mix, of course – like gun controls or education and parental rights or climate change or voting rights or public safety – but this one affecting abortion rights is front and center. If the Republicans gain control of the Senate and retain control of the House, they will have free rein to restrict abortion rights, reverse gun controls, enact permanent corporate tax cuts, pull back on climate change initiatives and even pull back on voting rights. The threat is not so much what a deceptively moderate Republican governor would propose but rather what Republican legislators with more extreme positions on these issues could do to make things worse.
Interestingly, the Governor’s Spirit of Virginia PAC has been attracting large contributions from sources external to Virginia. Varied figures are being cited in the news media – upwards of $15 million. The latest report highlights a $2 million contribution from a Republican donor whose wealth is tied in large measure to an investment in the Chinese social media giant TikTok. (Oddly enough, Governor Youngkin was one of those statewide governors who banned the use of TikTok in government agencies.) Democrats, of course, are zeroing in on any negative publicity they can stir up against the Governor. Big Republican donors may be cultivating this governor as an alternative to Trump, but that is hardly a reason to cheer him on.
Not only is this detrimental to the immediate needs of protecting abortion rights and gun controls and climate change and voting rights, but it is a dangerous game of being swept away with the populist nationalism that is so disruptive in Republican circles generally. Even in Virginia itself, this same Governor is stoking the parental rights flames that are banning books in public libraries and reversing reasonable transgender policies in the schools. He is certainly embroiling himself in the cultural issues that have resonated with the populist right, even as he is being solicited by anti-Trump Republican donors to be a possible alternative to that populist right.
And at the national level, a small clique of eight populist Republicans was able to defeat Speaker Kevin McCarthy and completely halt governance in the House of Representatives. One of those eight (Representative Bob Good) is from Virginia. The reprieve from a federal government shutdown that McCarthy negotiated with the Biden Administration may have avoided the especially negative effect that it could have had on Virginia, but his working with the Democrats on this was the trigger for this clique of eight to bring him down. The chaos that has ensued is shameful. Although it may have less of a direct bearing on Virginia’s legislative elections, it will certainly work in the Democrats’ favor to highlight how divided the Republican Party is and how easy it is for an anti-governing minority to control the political process so negatively.