RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A Democratic victory the day before lawmakers return to Richmond for the 2023 legislative session could undercut Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s pursuit of a 15-week abortion ban.
Democrat Aaron Rouse and Republican Kevin Adams are vying for the Virginia Beach-based seat in a special Virginia Senate election. The seat was left vacant by the resignation of Jen Kiggans, who stepped down after winning Virginia’s 2nd Congressional District race in November.
Even if Adams wins the seat in the Jan. 10 special election, Democrats would still hold the slim 21-19 majority in the state Senate the party used last year to squash Republicans’ efforts to pass abortion restrictions.
While Democrats would maintain a slim edge despite the outcome, Republican Lt. Gov. Winsome Earle-Sears breaks ties in the chamber and one Democrat, state Sen. Joe Morrissey (Richmond), opposes abortion and has previously voiced support for a ban after 15 weeks.
Sen. Morrissey told 8News in a brief phone interview Wednesday, a week before the 2023 session begins, that he’s going to keep an “open mind” on the proposals put forward this year and that he wants to hear expert testimony before making a decision.
Democrats can stop Youngkin’s 15-week abortion ban proposal from advancing out of the Senate Education and Health committee. But there are legislative steps to hold a floor vote on the bill without it going through the committee.
The uncertainty of what lies ahead, advocates and Rouse say, raises the stakes of the special election.
“This seat is incredibly crucial because we’re really technically one vote away from banning abortion in the state of Virginia,” Rouse, a Virginia Beach City councilman and former NFL player, said in an interview Wednesday.
Currently, Virginia allows abortions during the first and second trimester and only after the second trimester in circumstances when three doctors conclude “the continuation of the pregnancy is likely to result in the death of the woman or substantially and irremediably impair the mental or physical health of the woman.”
Adams’s campaign declined an interview request, instead directing 8News to an interview with WAVY-TV where he shared support for Youngkin’s 15-week proposal with exceptions for rape, incest and when the mother’s life is in danger.
Adams’s campaign manager also pointed 8News to the Navy veteran’s platform on his campaign website and shared a statement that didn’t address reproductive rights that labeled Rouse as “too extreme for Virginia.”
Another sign highlighting the attention the special election is getting is the money flooding into the race.
According to the nonpartisan Virginia Public Access Project, Rouse has raised more than $1.1 million, and Adams has brought in nearly $1 million, with several high-dollar donations from the Democratic and Republican Virginia Senate caucuses.
Advocacy groups, both anti-abortion and abortion-rights organizations, have taken steps to bring more focus to the Jan. 10 special election for the 7th state Senate District seat.
Caitlyn Connors, the southern regional director for the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America advocacy group, said the organization has sent out mailers and made calls to increase voter turnout for the special election.
“There is no doubt that this special election is going to be crucial. And we’re talking about the makeup of the Senate, we’re talking about having votes for pro-life legislation,” she said in an interview Wednesday. “That’s why we are, as an organization, engaged in that special election.”
But despite the results, Connors said, the Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America advocacy group will “fight” to ensure proposals such as Youngkin’s move forward.
“We recognize how critical it is, this election, but either way, come January 10, once we know how that election has come about and the next day once session starts, we’re going to be as aggressive as possible in passing this legislation,” Connors said. “We will work with any members who are receptive to the message that we should be protecting life.”
Jamie Lockhart, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia’s executive director, told 8News she’s seen “an alarming trend” of attacks on reproductive health care from Youngkin and other Republicans pushing for abortion restrictions.
“With our state Senate almost evenly divided, every single elected official is critical to our health and rights,” Lockhart said Wednesday in an interview.
While the abortion ban proposal has garnered most of the attention, Lockhart said bills such as the one recently put forward by Del. John McGuire (R-Goochland), which seeks to ban public funds from being given to abortion providers, will have a major impact if enacted because it would prevent them from providing other health care services.
“We need to remember who was most impacted by legislation like this to ban abortion and to restrict the ability of providers to provide the full range of reproductive health care and health care programming,” Lockhart said. “And that is low-income Virginians who are disproportionally people of color and people who live in rural communities and don’t have the same access to care.”
Early voting for the special election is open until Jan. 7 and Election Day is Jan. 10. The 2023 General Assembly session convenes on Jan. 11.