Abortion, party control at stake in legislative races
It’s a nerve-wracking time this fall for a small group of campaign managers, with the balance of power in the General Assembly coming down to a handful of close political races.
In House District 97, freshman Republican Del. Karen Greenhalgh is defending her Virginia Beach-centered seat against Michael Feggans, a Democrat who grew up in the city and served in the Air Force.
It’s a key, front-line race in the high-stakes battle for control of Virginia’s state legislature, with all 140 seats in the Senate and House of Delegates up for election this fall. (Early voting began Sept. 22 for the Nov. 7 general election.) Following extensive redistricting and an exodus of retiring legislators, politicos say it’s a tough call how the elections will shake out, but the outcome could determine the Assembly’s balance of political power for years to come. Races for both chambers will be closely fought, with the future of abortion access, tax laws, budget priorities and labor issues all in question.
According to the Virginia Public Access Project, District 97 is one of the state’s most competitive races this cycle. The district went 2.2 points for Republicans in 2021 and 5.2 points for Democrats in 2022. As of the Aug. 31 campaign finance reporting deadline, Feggans has raised $890,000 and Greenhalgh $852,955.
Greenhalgh founded Heritage Woodworks, a cabinet-manufacturing company she later sold, and Cyber Tygr, a business that addresses cybersecurity issues in health care. She also works as a manager for local crisis pregnancy centers, clinics that provide care — but not abortion services — to pregnant women. Four of 17 bills on which Greenhalgh was chief sponsor or chief co-sponsor passed last session. She was chief sponsor of legislation that would have expanded the parameters of written consent by people seeking abortions; the bill was killed in committee by the Democratic-held Virginia State Senate.
She also supports a 15-week ban on abortions favored by Gov. Glenn Youngkin and other Republicans, while Feggans has voiced his support for current state law, which allows abortions through the second trimester and requires approval from three doctors before a third-trimester procedure.
The candidates themselves say they’re running for office for less-complicated reasons.
“I have people in my district who are just like me, who live paycheck to paycheck,” Greenhalgh says. “As far as it being a swing district, no matter which party you tend to vote for, we want the same things: We want safe neighborhoods. We want good schools for our kids. We want good jobs to support families. Those are the dreams that everyone in my district has for their families and their children. I look for ways to make sure we don’t lose those opportunities in Virginia.”
Meanwhile, Feggans, who worked in health services management and started a cybersecurity company, touts his Air Force service and local and political ties. He previously interned in U.S. Sen. Mark Warner’s Norfolk office and for the state secretary of technology and earned his master’s degree in cybersecurity from Norfolk State University.
“I took all the experiences invested in me for 20 years to give back to the community that nurtured me,” Feggans says. “We know we have a pathway to victory. Virginia Beach is a military town. Not only my service record in the military, but my service to the community reflects who Virginia Beach is. I’m a product of Virginia Beach Public Schools and a product of Virginia colleges. I know I have a lot to offer to the city that raised me.”
On the verge
However homespun the candidates sound, politicos acknowledge that Virginia’s blueish reputation and recent legislative gridlock could change radically next year if the GOP wins a few tight races. Should Republicans attain majorities in both chambers, they have a chance to reframe Virginia politics. Corporate tax cuts and restrictions on abortion would be almost certainties.
“Democrats have been on the surge, but there’s a real possibility Republicans hold the House and take the Senate,” says political analyst A.J. Nolte, an assistant professor at Regent University’s Robertson School of Government. “They might have a trifecta for the first time in the state in a long time. That’s potentially an earthquake. People have gotten used to the idea Virginia is a more blue state, but let’s not forget [that] Republicans held both chambers as recently as 2018. Unified Democratic control is more recent.”
After a Republican ticket led by Gov. Bob McDonnell swept the 2009 races, Democrats won every subsequent statewide office — including both U.S. senatorial seats, governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general — until the GOP slate led by Gov. Glenn Youngkin won in 2021.
For his part, Youngkin has been active in raising money for Republican candidates in the June primaries and November’s general elections. In a very real sense, his political reputation and potential presidential aspirations are also on the line this fall. (See related story.)
Republicans are being propelled by Youngkin, who endorsed 10 successful candidates in key Republican primaries, and his Spirit of Virginia political action committee, which raised $5.9 million as of June 30.
“The governor made it a priority to recruit and endorse candidates in those races to make sure we had the strongest possible candidates going into the election cycle,” says David Rexrode, an adviser to the governor and chairman of Youngkin’s PAC.
This election, Rexrode says, “The No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 issues are — order varies by district — jobs and economy, education and public safety. That’s what our candidates are talking about because that’s what our voters care about.”
Meanwhile, Democrats largely are training their attacks on former President Donald Trump’s continuing influence in the Republican Party, and the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2022 Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization ruling, which overturned the federal right to abortion, ceding authority to states.
“Frankly, the stakes couldn’t be higher for Virginians, especially Virginia women,” says Liam Watson, press secretary for the Democratic Party of Virginia. “We all know what’s at stake this year is abortion rights — not just for Virginians but across the South. Virginia is the last Southern state without a post-Dobbs abortion ban. The GOP in Virginia right now at all levels is pushing for a ban on abortion. We know what Republicans are about; it’s not a mystery what they’d do if we give them full control of our government here in Richmond.”
Speaking about abortion access, Democratic Virginia House Minority Leader Don Scott of Portsmouth says, “The only people trying to pretend it’s not on the ballot are MAGA Republicans.”
Nolte says the Democratic caucus has been slowly transforming for years, but with mass retirements and primaries, moderates have largely given way to younger, more progressive candidates. Meanwhile, he adds, Youngkin’s money and influence largely overcame national trends and defeated “MAGA, flame-throwing folks” in GOP primaries, such as Del. Marie March and Sen. Amanda Chase, who lost battles against more moderate Republican challengers.
Youngkin’s Virginia organization “is heavily focused on training, heavily focused on [building] disciplined, technically proficient campaigns,” Nolte says, but is “not as much focused on big-ticket messaging.”
In response to Youngkin’s PAC largesse, President Joe Biden in September directed the Democratic National Committee to add $1.2 million in contributions to Democrats running for Virginia legislative seats, bringing the DNC’s total to $1.5 million.
“When we had the majority, the biggest thing we did was make sure this economy works for everybody,” Scott says. “Virginia was named the No. 1 state for business in the country twice during that time. The governor now, who is supposed to be a business guy, hasn’t been able to accomplish that.”
Although many of the November candidates prefer to focus on local, less hot-button issues than abortion, it’s clear that the Virginia General Assembly’s more collegial, compromise-friendly tenor will change next year because of the number of retired legislators and lame-duck incumbents leaving office in January.
Lawmakers with a combined 649 years of legislative experience will not return to the General Assembly in 2024, according to former Republican Del. Chris Saxman, executive director of Virginia FREE, a nonpartisan, business-focused political organization.
The 2021 statewide redistricting placed a significant number of incumbents in the same district, leading to retirements and hard-bitten primaries. Many who made it through the June primaries now have a clear path to election in November due to the makeup of their districts, except in a handful of toss-up districts that will determine political control.
With both parties eager to motivate voters, competitive races are hinging largely on negative campaigning, says political analyst Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington and a longtime observer of the legislature.
“The key thing is getting your base out,” Farnsworth says. “The demonization of the other side is a tried-and-true strategy for getting your voters to actually turn out, and the way that’s done is to create sort of funhouse mirror images of the opposing party.”
One notable example is the battleground 57th District race for an open seat in Henrico and Goochland counties. In September, a Republican operative informed The Washington Post that Democratic candidate Susanna Gibson, a nurse practitioner, had performed sex acts with her attorney husband for tips on a streaming porn website, leading to a slew of spicy national headlines. The operative has denied any connection with Gibson’s GOP opponent, David Owen, former co-owner of Goochland-based Boone Homes. Gibson has framed the incident as “gutter politics” and an attempt to intimidate, silence and humiliate her. Her attorney has argued that the leaked content violates the state’s revenge porn laws, however Gibson knowingly appeared live on a porn website that didn’t require a password for access.
Negative campaigning only exacerbates a concurrent shift that mirrors national politics — a growing number of elected officials are less likely to cross party lines in support of bipartisan, moderate policies.
“When elections are conducted in this fashion, you find very few moderates elected and find very little opportunity for compromise,” Farnsworth says, “because, after all, you basically spent the general election making the argument the other side is in thrall to the things your voters hate. Increasingly, Virginia is looking a lot like Capitol Hill when it comes to partisan gridlock and hot-button issues.”
The new lines could end up favoring Democrats because the new districts skew the balance of power to suburbs, whether in Northern Virginia, Hampton Roads or the Richmond metro region, Farnsworth notes, so candidates on both sides are carefully tailoring their campaign messages to appeal to moderates.
Walking a fine line
Take Sen. Siobhan Dunnavant, a two-term Republican incumbent from western Henrico County. An OB/GYN, she was the only Republican to join Democrats in defeating Greenhalgh’s abortion information bill.
She won an open seat in 2015, then eked out a narrow re-election victory amid the Democratic wave of 2019. She’s now running in Senate District 16, which went for Democrats by 6 percentage points in 2021 and 10 percentage points in 2022, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
Dunnavant, who pitches herself as a down-to-earth citizen legislator in pursuit of straightforward fixes to policy problems, is running against Democrat Del. Schuyler VanValkenburg, a Henrico County teacher who has served in the House since 2018. It’s a must-win for both parties as they seek control of the Democratic-held Senate.
“I am in one of those purple seats that is even more favorable for Democrats,” Dunnavant says, “and yet, I’ve won it before, and I’ll win it again because of the fact that I actually work hard on common-sense bills that make a difference in my constituents’ lives.”
Dunnavant has focused on bipartisan legislation she sponsored to standardize health care records and establish dual-enrollment credits among high schools, community colleges and public four-year universities. But she also generally backs Youngkin’s position to place restrictions on abortion after 15 weeks, with exceptions for rape, incest, life of the mother and severe birth defects, and to restrict the procedure altogether in the third trimester. VanValkenburg, who did not respond to interview requests, has said that Dunnavant’s position on abortion is “drastically out of touch.”
Through Aug. 31, Dunnavant raised $1.9 million, and VanValkenburg brought in $1.6 million.
On the Democratic side, Sen. Montgomery “Monty” Mason of Williamsburg has focused his campaign to retain the seat he’s held since 2017 on his business background, which includes his current job as a senior director for Visa and his previous stint as chairman of the Williamsburg Economic Development Authority board. Mason says he’s well-positioned to run in a seat that leaned 1.1 points toward Democrats in 2022, according to VPAP.
“I’m a good person to give a 50/50 district to,” Mason says. “I’m a moderate. I have a lot of veterans in my district. Of course, school safety and discussions about gun safety and how to protect children have been an enormous topic of conversation.”
Mason says a large contingent of military veterans in the district have expressed support for Republican-backed tax relief, while a significant number of voters are talking about safety and funding for schools.
As of Aug. 31, Mason raised $2 million, and his Republican challenger, Danny Diggs, raised $1.3 million.
Mason’s biggest funder so far this year is Dominion Energy, a polarizing campaign donor. Many Democrats have received money from the utility, but others have made a point of rejecting its donations. The latter have been supported by Clean Virginia, a PAC that supports candidates who spurn Dominion funding. In March, Clean Virginia said it expected to spend $2.5 million on Virginia elections this year.
Dominion has made significant contributions to Republicans and Democrats for years, but the Fortune 500 utility’s expansive influence has become a source of controversy, particularly among Democratic delegates in fierce primary battles. As of Aug. 31, Dominion had contributed $3.2 million to Democratic PACs and candidates in state races, and $2.6 million to Republicans, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.
With more legislators caught up in partisan or intraparty political battles than ever before, businesses and individuals who wish to stay in the good graces of whoever holds the power in Richmond face hard choices.
“In today’s Virginia politics, there will be a lot more lawmaking from a more decidedly liberal or decidedly conservative perspective,” Farnsworth says. “That means that elections have higher stakes in terms of the outcome, but they also are more risky for business. If you back the wrong party, that’s bad for you.”
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