Virginia voters will decide legislature’s political control, with abortion rights hotly contested

Virginia voters will decide legislature’s political control, with abortion rights hotly contested

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia’s closely watched legislative campaign cycle wrapped up Tuesday, as voters decided whether to empower Republicans with full state government control or let Democrats keep serving as a bulwark against Gov.

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia’s closely watched legislative campaign cycle wrapped up Tuesday, as voters decided whether to empower Republicans with full state government control or let Democrats keep serving as a bulwark against Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s agenda.

The outcome in Virginia — among just four states with legislative elections this year — will be closely scrutinized nationwide for hints of what may come in the 2024 presidential cycle.

While all 140 General Assembly seats were on the ballot in a costly and competitive election year, the balance of power, currently divided, will likely be decided in about a dozen districts in Hampton Roads, suburban Richmond and northern Virginia. Candidates made their case to voters on the economy, the environment, public safety and schools, but no issue was more hotly contested than abortion in the last state in the South without new restrictions since the end of Roe v. Wade.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday evening at a suburban Richmond polling place, Youngkin said he hoped voters would extend Republicans’ “license to lead” but added he expected the battleground races to be tight, likely decided by “hundreds of votes.”

“I’d ask folks to elect a House and elect a Senate that will work with me, not against me, so that we can continue to release this unbridled opportunity across the Commonwealth of Virginia,” Youngkin said after chatting with voters and handing out sample ballots.

Polls closed at 7 p.m. after a day of voting that seemed to proceed smoothly, with no reports from either party of major issues.

Candidates spent the run-up to Election Day hosting last-minute get-out-the-vote rallies and canvasses, and some were door-knocking even in the waning hours of voting Tuesday.

President Joe Biden, who won Virginia in 2020 by 10 percentage points and campaigned against Youngkin in the state in 2021, did not appear in person, but signed off on a fundraising email and endorsements.

Republicans are hoping their candidates benefit from the Democratic president’s persistently poor approval ratings, which are lower than Youngkin’s.

The governor headlined his party’s campaign events. He appeared with candidates in competitive districts statewide as part of a bus tour promoting an early voting initiative aimed at reversing years of GOP mistrust in the policy.

Some voters said abortion rights topped their concerns. Youngkin has pledged to try again for an abortion ban after 15 weeks with exceptions for rape, incest and situations where the mother’s life is at risk.

James Burkhardt, 37, a software engineer from Henrico County outside Richmond, waited in a long line Friday to cast his ballot early. He supported two Democrats who emphasized protecting abortion access — Del. Rodney Willett, who is seeking reelection to the House against Republican Riley Shaia, and Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, who is vying for a state Senate seat.

VanValkenburg’s opponent, Republican Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, is an OB-GYN who said she supports access to abortion through 15 weeks and afterward only in cases of rape, incest, severe fetal anomalies, and to save the mother’s life.

Burkhardt said he could not understand Dunnavant’s support for putting new limits on abortion access, given her career.

“It blows my mind that she could vote against women’s right to choose at any stage of their pregnancy what’s right for them,” he said.

Other voters said Youngkin had landed on a reasonable position.

Retiree Scott McKenzie, 78, voted early for Republicans in Virginia Beach. He said he’s comfortable with a 15-week ban and supports some of the same exceptions as Youngkin.

“On the one hand, I support right for life. But on the other hand, there’s times when a young lady maybe did not have a choice,” he said.

In addition to the Willett-Shaia and VanValkenburg-Dunnavant races, other notable matchups include an ultra-competitive Tidewater race between Democratic Senate incumbent Monty Mason and GOP challenger Danny Diggs, a retired longtime sheriff. The contest has featured particularly bitter TV ads, and is critical to Republican efforts to flip control of the Senate.

In Virginia’s Washington exurbs, another tight Senate race between Democratic Marine veteran Joel Griffin and GOP Del. Tara Durant also features Monica Gary, a wild-card independent candidate with a history of electoral success.

In suburban Richmond, Democrat Susanna Gibson — who proceeded with her campaign after news broke that she had performed sex acts with her husband in live videos posted on a pornographic website — aims to prevail over Republican David Owen even after some party support wilted away following the controversy.

Other competitive House races are playing out in Hampton Roads, the exurban D.C. Interstate 95 corridor and one district south of Richmond.

While Democratic candidates centered their pitch to voters on protecting abortion rights, Republicans ran on crime, education and the economy.

The latter is something that resonated with Stephen Jones, who voted Republican in Norfolk, saying doing so sends a message to Washington. He cited inflation, gas prices and interest rates as proof that things are not going well.

“There’s all kinds of indicators that don’t indicate that Bidenomics, if you will, is working,” Jones said, adding that he recently bought a 16-ounce bottle of Pepsi for $2.60.

But Marie Holland, who voted in Norfolk for Democrats, said the economy actually appears to be on an upswing.

“All of these things take time — it’s never in a one or two-year cycle. And I think we’re getting there,” said Holland, 67, who works as a physician and also emphasized her support for abortion rights. “We had gotten pretty far down. But we’ve avoided a full-blown recession.”

Republicans generally see a tougher path to flipping the Senate than holding the House under the new maps all legislative candidates are running under for the first time this year. During this year’s session, Republicans held a slim House majority, while Democrats narrowly controlled the Senate.

Also on the ballot were local school board and prosecutor races around the state, and a referendum in Richmond on whether to authorize a proposed casino.


Associated Press writer Denise Lavoie in Henrico County contributed to this report, along with AP writer Ben Finley in Virginia Beach and Norfolk.

Sarah Rankin, The Associated Press


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