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Schapiro: Kansas abortion-rights tornado could blow through Virginia

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What’s the matter with Kansas?

Nothing that hasn’t already happened in Virginia.

Voters’ stunning rejection in deep-red Kansas on Tuesday of a measure that would have opened the door to sharp restrictions on abortion, if not an outright prohibition, recalls a pattern in Virginia politics that could play out again here to the detriment of both parties but has been particularly perilous for Republicans.

This is not just because abortion rights is an issue in Virginia that tends to energize a majority of Democrats. It’s because Republican hostility to abortion rights can alienate a consequential minority of the party’s voters and a majority of election-deciding, often GOP-leaning independents.

The Kansas assault on abortion — it assumed greater relevance after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling reversing Roe v. Wade after nearly 50 years — failed because in a heavier-than-expected turnout a slice of the presumed Republican vote — upward of 18%, according to The New York Times — broke with the party, which has made antipathy for reproductive rights an article of faith.

No matter how much or how loudly Virginia Democrats yowl about the sanctity of abortion rights and Republicans underscore their determination to limit or eliminate them altogether, the issue’s potency is largely determined by events. Such was case in 1989 when the Supreme Court, in a first step toward easing Roe protections, ruled that some limits on abortion were permissible.

That was a gubernatorial election year here. Abortion almost immediately became the marquee issue because Virginia, one of two states then choosing governors, was politically competitive, ensuring a fuller measure of public sentiment on a possible dial-back of abortion rights hastened by the Supreme Court ruling in a Missouri lawsuit, Webster v. Reproductive Health Services.

The Republican nominee, Marshall Coleman, earlier in his career a supporter of abortion rights, was running as a near-absolute opponent of the procedure. He had shifted to accommodate the cultural, religious and social conservatives who controlled the nominating process.

Wilder would win narrowly — by less than half a percentage point — becoming the nation’s first elective Black governor. His victory was attributed to a robust minority vote in the cities and countryside but as well to enthusiasm in the heavily white suburbs, including the giant vote trove of Fairfax County, where support for Republicans was ebbing, in part, because of their increasingly rigid stance against abortion.

A decade after Wilder’s victory, divisions among Republicans over abortion played out in the defeat of a Fairfax County GOP senator, Jane Woods, who died last month. Her support for abortion rights spurred an independent candidacy by an abortion opponent, setting up a three-way race in which a Democrat was elected because the Republican vote was divided.

Abortion has often been dwarfed in Virginia as an issue. That’s what we saw last year, when Republican Glenn Youngkin, who opposes abortion and recently endorsed legislation to bar most abortions after 15 weeks, defeated Democrat Terry McAuliffe by less than 2 percentage points by harnessing voter anxiety over COVID-19 and inflation. Though he spotlighted Youngkin’s stance on abortion and his attempts to blur it, McAuliffe preferred to depict Youngkin as a well-mannered clone of Donald Trump.

The Supreme Court decision junking Roe has suddenly elevated the significance of abortion rights — or the potential denial, thereof. The Kansas vote is the first electoral gauge of that.

“There are still a lot of us out there,” Katherine Waddell, a Republican-turned-independent and abortion-rights advocate, said of GOP voters prepared to break with their party to support Democrats who back abortion rights.

Indeed, fresh polling by Virginia Commonwealth University shows that 41% of Republicans and 56% of independents view as reasonable the state’s abortion laws, which set no restrictions in the first two trimesters. Overall, 50% of Virginia adults consider laws reasonable and 18% say they are too strict.

Though legislative elections are not until 2023, when who knows what voters will be worrying about, control of the House of Delegates and the state Senate would ultimately determine whether Virginia remains among the 27 states where abortion is legal. That distinction hangs on a single Democrat-held seat in the Senate. Republicans control the House.

Abortion could alter expectations in both parties.

In a swing Senate district in suburban Richmond, Henrico County incumbent Republican Siobhan Dunnavant, a gynecologist, is expected to face Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg and may have to answer for agreeing to Youngkin’s request that she assist in drafting abortion restrictions for consideration by lawmakers in January.

The makeup of the General Assembly could determine, too, whether Virginians have a chance to revise the state constitution to preserve abortion rights — as McAuliffe proposed last year — or, perhaps, abolish them. Given strong public support for abortion rights, the former — under a Democratic legislature — seems a safer bet than the latter, which would require Republican unanimity.

Post-Roe — and now, post-Kansas — both sides are expecting a fight.

As Victoria Cobb, of the anti-abortion Family Foundation, put it, “Every state is different and in each state the conversation will look different.”

Contact Jeff E. Schapiro at (804) 649- 6814 or jschapiro@timesdispatch.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter, @RTDSchapiro. Listen to his analysis 7:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Friday on Radio IQ, 89.7 FM in Richmond and 89.1 FM in Roanoke, and in Norfolk on WHRV, 89.5 FM.

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