RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia’s closely watched legislative campaign cycle closes out Tuesday, as voters decide 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 — one of 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 are 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 have been making their case to voters on the economy, the environment, public safety and schools, but no issue has been more hotly contested than abortion in the last state in the South without new restrictions since the end of Roe v. Wade.
The contests are “the most important elections in America because these issues that are so important to Virginians are also the ones that are going to be so important to Americans next year,” Youngkin said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Candidates for both parties spent the run-up to Election Day hosting last-minute get-out-the-vote rallies and canvasses.
Democrats brought in surrogates including Maryland Gov. Wes Moore, gun control activist David Hogg — a Florida high school mass shooting survivor — and former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who joined Senate President Pro Tempore Louise Lucas for a northern Virginia appearance.
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 who voted early 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. 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.
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.
Polls are open from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday, and Virginia offers same-day voter registration.
Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie in Henrico County and Ben Finley in Virginia Beach contributed to this report.
Sarah Rankin, The Associated Press