Virginia’s fall elections are barely six months away, and the primary elections are a mere month and a half off. While Democratic candidates are broadly supportive of reproductive rights, some primary races on that side of the aisle may be turning on this crucial issue.
When Virginia Democrats won majority control of the House of Delegates and the state Senate in 2019, they swiftly used their newfound power to protect and expand reproductive freedom in the commonwealth. Democrats passed the Reproductive Health Protection Act, which repealed a slew of onerous, medically unnecessary restrictions Republicans had put in place to discourage abortion care. They also enacted new laws allowing health insurance plans to cover abortion and ensuring that birth control access is protected.
In 2021, Democrats lost their majority in the state House, and an anti-abortion Republican was elected governor. The continued Democratic majority in the state Senate was able to block Republicans from re-implementing abortion restrictions, but with all 140 General Assembly seats on the ballot this coming November – 100 in House of Delegates and 40 in the state Senate – voters will again decide the fate of abortion in the commonwealth.
As Breanna Diaz, policy and legislative counsel at the ACLU of Virginia, recently noted to the American Independent, “If anti-abortion legislators are the majority in both chambers, we should expect to see a 15-week ban or an all-out ban move through the General Assembly.”
But in some parts of the state, Virginians won’t have to wait until November to cast votes that impact reproductive freedom. The issue is effectively already on the ballot in some June 20, 2023, primary elections.
No Democratic primary contest is more notable for its reproductive rights implications than the one in Senate District 13, which includes Petersburg, some of the Richmond area, and a chunk of south-central Virginia.
Here, former Del. Lashrecse Aird is taking on incumbent Sen. Joe Morrissey. Morrissey’s troubling background extends far beyond his unwillingness to support abortion rights, but reproductive freedom has emerged as the central issue in this contest.
Morrissey has a record of voting against abortion rights and has indicated that he is open to working with Republican lawmakers to pass at least some restrictions on reproductive freedom. And if Republicans pick up just two state Senate seats in November, Morrisseey could help them enact these restrictions.
Morrissey’s Democratic women colleagues in the state Senate joined together recently to publicly oppose his candidacy and to endorse his primary opponent – an unprecedented move against a sitting member of their own party.
“Morrissey has a long history of being on the wrong side of the values that matter to Virginia’s Democratic voters. His public behavior has, for years, drawn attention to himself rather than to the needs of his constituents,” the senators said in a joint statement.
Soon after, U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, three men in the state Senate, and several members of the state House (where Aird served from 2016 to 2022) echoed these sentiments.
This week, Aird is further highlighting Morrissey’s opposition to reproductive rights by launching a “Roe Not Joe” tour, which aims to “hold Joe Morrissey accountable for his extreme anti-choice record.”
After a draft of the Dobbs decision that would end up formally overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked a year ago, Morrissey detailed his opposition to abortion rights to a local news station.
“I think one of the considerations has got to be fetal pain,” he told a Richmond NBC affiliate. “If a fetus can feel pain, that may be the marker when you, up to where abortion is allowed. And whether that’s 20 or 20 plus weeks, we need to, all the legislators need to, hear scientific evidence.”
Virginia abortion rights groups REPRO Rising Virginia and Planned Parenthood of Virginia are vocal in their support of Aird in this important Senate primary (this liberal-leaning district is likely safely in the Democratic column for the general election), but REPRO Rising Virginia (formerly a NARAL affiliate) is also weighing in on several other primaries – an unusual step for this organization, which otherwise tends to save its resources to help pro-reproductive rights candidates in general elections.
For state Senate, REPRO Rising Virginia has endorsed incumbent Sens. Creigh Deeds (SD-11), Louise Lucas (SD-18), George Barker (SD-36), and Barbara Favola (SD-40), as well as Russet Perry (SD-31), Del. Suhas Subramanyam (SD-32), and Saddam Salim (SD-37), though the group notes that the other Democratic candidates in districts 11, 18, 31, and 35 “will prioritize and fight to protect and advance reproductive rights and freedom” if they prevail in these contests.
In lieu of further hedging their bets in such a manner, REPRO Rising Virginia has endorsed in just one state House primary (Adele McClure in HD-02). The group has also endorsed Steve Descano in his primary for Fairfax County Commonwealth’s Attorney.
Early voting for the June 20, 2023, primary elections begins on Friday, May 5, and continues through Saturday, June 17.