HENRICO COUNTY, Va. (WRIC) — Republican Siobhan Dunnavant wants her Democratic opponent, Schuyler VanValkenburg, to retract a new ad that blames her for book bans in Virginia schools — threatening potential legal action if he keeps them on the air.

State Sen. Dunnavant (R-Henrico) and Del. VanValkenburg (D-Henrico) are facing off in one of the Richmond area’s most highly contested races this Virginia election season, raising and spending millions on campaign ads ahead of the Nov. 7 elections, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

All of the state’s legislative seats are on the ballot (some candidates are running unopposed), raising the stakes of the 2023 elections as Democrats and Republicans eye taking full control of the Virginia General Assembly.

In an ad released Oct. 10, VanValkenburg ties a 2022 law proposed by Dunnavant to book bans in Virginia schools.

“‘The Diary of Anne Frank.’ ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Because of Siobhan Dunnavant’s new law, MAGA Republicans are banning books like these across Virginia, censoring what our students learn,” the ad’s narrator says.

The bill at the center of the ad, Senate Bill 656, requires schools to notify parents of instructional materials with “sexually explicit content” and allow them to ask for their children to get an alternative.

Dunnavant said during a Wednesday press conference that her lawyers were sending a letter to VanValkenburg seeking a retraction, claiming the ad publicly misrepresents her work and maligns her character.

“If you do not immediately cease and desist airing these false claims, Senator Dunnavant will be forced to consider all available legal action against you and your campaign,” the letter reads.

On Wednesday, Dunnavant pointed to specific language in the bill that states it “shall not be construed as requiring or providing for the censoring of books in public elementary and secondary schools.”

But in a response to Dunnavant’s claims, VanValkenburg’s campaign argued that the bill has been invoked by districts that have pursued efforts to remove books from school libraries and classrooms. VanValkenburg’s campaign statement reads, in part: “It is a fact and has been widely reported that Senator Dunnavant’s legislation has enabled right-wing MAGA extremists across the Commonwealth in their attempts to ban classic and educationally important books, like the Diary of Anne Frank and To Kill a Mockingbird.”

There have been multiple news reports on books being removed from Virginia schools after the district cited Dunnavant’s bill, including in Spotsylvania and Hanover counties.

The Hanover County School Board adopted a policy in June referencing the state code created by the 2022 law to give itself more authority over books in the school district. Once the policy was passed, the board used the new rules to ban 19 books.

In a story on Stateline, published in the Virginia Mercury on June 15, Dunnavant responded to book ban requests citing her bill.

“This is not about books,” Dunnavant told Stateline. “This is not about censoring. This is about collaboration and what’s in the best interest of a child. And so, I was sorry to hear … that in some cases someone is using this bill in the wrong way.”

When asked Wednesday whether her bill was serving its intended purpose or needed changes after reports of school boards citing the law to list books, such as “The Diary of Anne Frank,” as having sexually explicit content, Dunnavant said that she believes anyone who thinks it “can be used in that way, needs to go read the bill.”

“If you give extremists the tools to promote hate and sow division, they will use them,” the statement from VanValkenburg’s campaign continues. “We encourage Senator Dunnavant to reflect on the tool she provided to the most extreme right-flank of her party and take responsibility for doing so.”

The race between Dunnavant and VanValkenburg in the newly drawn 16th state Senate district – a western Henrico County district that leans Democrat after redistricting – is considered one of the most competitive this year and could decide which party has the majority in the chamber.   

Early voting is already underway in Virginia’s 2023 state elections. Election Day is Nov. 7, when polls will be open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.