How the Democrats Won Virginia

On the eve of Election Day in Virginia, Russet Perry was confident she’d knocked on enough doors in Loudoun and Fauquier Counties to know what voters wanted. “Abortion is a huge thing here, with Virginia being the last southern state to have the protections promised in Roe,” she told me. For months, Perry and other Democrats across the state had stressed that the stakes of yesterday’s election were clear: Republicans had control of the House of Delegates, and the state Senate was the only thing preventing an abortion ban from making it to Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s desk. And in the state’s Thirty-First District, where Perry was on the ballot, voters could help maintain that majority.

Last night, those voters delivered the seat to Perry; she defeated Juan Pablo Segura by more than 5,000 votes. Perry was part of a trend: Across the state, Democrats won expensive, sharply contested races and not only kept the senate but won back the House of Delegates as well. The Democratic victories in Virginia—as well as the passage of a constitutional amendment in Ohio that guarantees access to abortions—underscored the fact that many voters are still unhappy about the Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade, and, as in 2022, they are turning out to vote and protect the right to an abortion. Moreover, Democrats’ victories last night also raise doubts about the effectiveness of the Republican focus on crime and schools that they believe lean too far left—two areas where they perceive Democrats as weak. Democrats, of course, are hoping that voters will continue to disagree, especially as the country heads into the 2024 election cycle.

In the lead-up to Virginia’s election for governor just two years ago, Loudoun County became shorthand for the issues that defined the race. Conservatives who were already upset with school closures during the pandemic had begun protesting several policies enacted by the local school board, including one that allowed transgender students to use the restrooms and locker rooms that conformed with their gender identity, and a curriculum that they argued was littered with critical race theory. Then-candidate Youngkin seized on that anger and made it a pillar of his campaign, blanketing radio and television with millions of dollars in advertisements promising that he would help restore “parental rights” to schools. “On day one, we are going to ban teaching critical race theory in our schools,” Youngkin told a Leesburg audience in September 2021.

And by and large, it worked. Youngkin won the governor’s mansion; Republicans in Virginia reclaimed the House of Delegates. Some observers saw the victories as evidence of a mandate: Voters were upset about what was happening in schools, and they were ready for a change. Results from other states, however, revealed a blurrier picture, given that several wellfinanced conservative anti-CRT candidates lost downballot school-board races. Last night was an opportunity to test whether Youngkin’s strategy was one with longevity or more of a blip, with abortion having emerged as the new driver of votes.

As Mark Rozell, a political scientist at George Mason University, told me, the race in Senate District 31 was a microcosm of the dynamics in Virginia more generally. The Republican candidate, Segura, sought to attack Perry, a former CIA officer and prosecutor, for her work at the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office under Buta Biberaj, a Democrat who’d said that she would no longer prosecute misdemeanors. As the official account for the Virginia Republican Party wrote on X (formerly Twitter), Perry was, to their mind, a “top lieutenant for left-wing Soros Prosecutor Buta Biberaj … backed by defund-the-police radicals.” At the same time, Segura also pushed to rebut the Democratic charges of extremism on abortion. Following Youngkin’s lead, Segura argued that the “entire Republican Party has come together around 15 weeks” as a cutoff for abortions.

But Perry and other Democrats argued that Youngkin’s 15-week proposal was disingenuous—an effort to attract moderate voters. After all, Youngkin had previously said that he would sign any bill to “protect life,” Perry told me, and this would not be the first time that someone said one thing and did another about abortion: “I watched the congressional hearings for the Supreme Court justices, and I watched person after person that got put on the Supreme Court raise their hand and say they thought Roe was the law of the land and that we need to stand by precedent. Then I watched as they rolled it back.”

For Youngkin, a politician who has been regarded as a potential presidential candidate and who has just two years left in his term in office, these election results are a major setback for his agenda in Virginia and his ambitions more broadly. “If he had GOP control, he had unfettered ability to push a conservative agenda and parlay that into a future national campaign,” Rozell told me. Youngkin’s PAC has raised nearly $19 million since March, some of which he used to support 10 candidates in competitive districts, including Segura, and he made nearly 100 campaign stops. “Youngkin put a lot of political capital on the line, and that has some consequences for him in terms of his national political profile” Rozell said. If his stamp was unable to turn voters out in his own state, Republicans now have reason to worry about the broader appeal of his brand of conservatism to their base.

Last night, just after 9:30 p.m., Perry arrived at Stone Tower Winery, in Leesburg, to deliver her victory speech, in which she vowed to “ensure the right to choose here in Virginia.” Shortly thereafter, results came in showing that Democrats had also won a majority of the seats on Loudoun County’s school board. Republicans, meanwhile, were again handed a reminder that though they’d celebrated the end of Roe v. Wade, its demise has initiated a fierce backlash that the party is still struggling to overcome.

The Atlantic