Glenn Youngkin Bet His Political Future on a ‘Less Extreme’ Abortion Ban and Lost

Up until last night, Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin was seen as a probable kingmaker, potential Republican presidential contender, and the future of a party in disarray.

In an election where every seat in the state legislature was on the ballot, Democrats kept their narrow advantage in the state Senate and wrested control of the House of Delegates from the GOP. Youngkin might not have been on the ballot himself, but he is absolutely the election’s biggest loser.

Youngkin ran for office in 2021 focusing on public education—specifically amping up fears about critical race theory (CRT) supposedly being taught in public schools, while also playing off outrage over extended school closures during the pandemic. These were framed as “parents’ rights” issues.

He also wisely made a pointed decision to distance himself from Donald Trump—who was still politically toxic so soon after his attempts to overturn the 2020 election and inciting the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol.

But Youngkin deftly walked a tightrope to keep from alienating too much of the MAGA base. Youngkin’s secret weapon for victory in 2021 was suburban women (a political euphemism typically used as a stand-in for “white women”), who were mostly not politically extreme MAGA diehards, but were plenty pissed off about schools—and Republicans did everything they could to stoke that anger.

White women voters were so integral to Youngkin’s ascension to power that one Virginia Democratic consultant called the numbers “very sobering.” White women in 2021 swung toward the GOP by 13 points compared to the previous election, and among white women without college degrees, that swing was a whopping 37 points.

The suburban woman vote is a key demographic for both parties and shifts among this group can make or break a campaign—which is what appeared to happen in Virginia’s elections last night.

And the main reason is almost certainly the same one that’s been torpedoing Republican candidates and GOP-backed initiatives since Roe v. Wade was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2022. Suburban women, like most women, don’t want to be told what they can do with their bodies.

A poll conducted by the Wason Center at Christopher Newport University released in early October showed 54 percent of Virginians either opposed or strongly opposed Youngkin’s proposed 15-week ban on abortion. Youngkin’s approval ratings have been relatively high for much of his term in office, and he has framed his proposed restriction on reproductive rights as a less extreme alternative to the total bans favored by many GOP officials across the country.

But running a campaign on the culture wars at the height of the CRT panic (remember that?) is very different from running a campaign that limits a woman’s reproductive rights, despite ill-founded attempts to make abortion restrictions more women friendly.

Youngkin assumed he could pull a fast one and trick women voters into accepting a more moderate tone on abortion restrictions—which he also saw as a smart strategy for Republicans nationwide. (Youngkin’s abortion ban at 15 weeks included exceptions for rape, incest, and medical emergencies.)

As evidenced not only in Virginia, but in Ohio where voters yesterday resoundingly voted in favor of adding to the state’s constitution an amendment to protect a woman’s right to an abortion, women want to control their own bodies and would like the government to stay out of it. This includes the “suburban” white women who have been so crucial to recent GOP electoral victories.

Youngkin bet his political future—including a possible presidential run—on the idea that he could find a middle ground between “extreme” total bans on abortion and his softer 15-week ban with exceptions. But a ban is a ban, and voters, especially women, are making it clear to Republicans that they don’t see the difference as meaningful.

Will Republicans finally take a hint and keep their policies away from women’s bodies or continue to get annihilated at the polls? The choice is theirs.

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