Big Virginia abortion test: Can it energize Democratic base?

Abortion Democrats Virginia

HENRICO, Va. (AP) — When Planned Parenthood canvassers stopped by Megan Ortiz's house, the 32-year-old therapist was getting ready to head out and too distracted to talk for long.

But after they left, she thought better of it. She jumped in her minivan and drove the streets of her suburban Richmond neighborhood until she tracked down the canvassers. “I want to volunteer for you!” she proclaimed, eliciting cheers.

What changed her mind? Texas, she said.

“It’s just really scary, ” Ortiz said, of the state’s new law that bans most abortion. “It’s important that women’s voices be heard.”

Democrat Terry McAuliffe has spent months trying to get Virginia voters to focus on abortion, part of his effort to drive the Democratic turnout he needs to win the state's closely watched governor's race. Pointing to the Texas law, and with a majority-conservative Supreme Court taking up a case that could overturn the landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, McAuliffe and his allies argue that the issue may matter more now than at any previous time in a half century.

But breaking through to Democratic voters who are weary of politics in general and more focused on the pandemic, the fragile economy and other issues has been a struggle. McAuliffe’s battle with Republican former business executive Glenn Youngkin appears headed to the wire, even in Virginia, where Republicans have not won statewide office in 12 years and women, especially those in the suburbs, have turned away from the GOP in droves during the Trump administration.

If protecting abortion rights doesn’t rise above the din of issues like COVID restrictions for schools in this Democratic-leaning state, that doesn’t bode well for a party hoping the issue can prove decisive nationwide in preserving its narrow control of Congress during next year’s midterms.

“This is something that voters across the country should be scared about,” said Jessica Floyd, president of American Bridge 21st Century, the Democratic Party’s opposition research arm.

Though she argued McAuliffe’s plans are better on multiple fronts, Floyd also conceded: “We know women are tired post-Trump. We’re all focused on our families.”

A Monmouth University poll released late last month found that abortion trailed the economy, the pandemic and education on Virginia voters’ list of priorities. The same poll found that McAuliffe had a 40-32% advantage on the issue.

Planned Parenthood Virginia Advocates, the state’s leading reproductive rights organization, said it's enlisted fewer volunteers this cycle.

“It has been shockingly difficult recruiting folks,” said Lucy Hartman, the group’s organizing director, who noted that part of the problem was the coronavirus delta variant surging this summer.

NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, another abortion rights group, tweeted that it is still looking for people to knock on doors prior to Election Day — and paying canvassers $25 per hour.

Democrats are familiar with this. For years, abortion rights opponents have been more effective at mobilizing voters around this single issue, effectively creating a passion gap between the two sides.

Gallup polling released last year found that those who oppose abortion are more likely to make it the deciding factor in elections, 30% to 19% when compared to abortion rights supporters.

Those anti-abortion voters include Andrea Pearson, a 59-year-old office manager from Leesburg, about 30 miles outside Washingt