In the summer of 1989, Douglas Wilder’s campaign for governor was considered moribund, directionless, without much of a message. Whether that was really true doesn’t matter, that was the public perception at the time. By contrast, Republican Marshall Coleman was the surprise winner of the Republican primary and had what felt like momentum.
Then on July 3, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a Missouri law that imposed certain restrictions on state funding for abortion. Boom! Right then, the whole tone of the campaign changed.
“Wilder’s media campaign seized on that volatile issue, casting it in terms of government intervention and personal privacy, and invoking such symbols as the American flag and Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to support Wilder’s abortion-rights stance,” The Washington Post reported in a recap of the election. Coleman’s campaign was “paralyzed,” one political analyst told the Post. Politically, the abortion issue was seen as a way for Wilder, a Democrat, to make inroads with suburban women – this at a time when most suburbs voted Republican.
“Abortion was easily the overriding issue of the campaign,” the Post wrote, and Wilder went on to win a narrow victory. “Polls indicated that Wilder benefited more from the issue than Coleman did because most Virginians favor at least some degree of abortion rights.”
For Democrats who are reeling from the leak of a draft Supreme Court decision that would overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision guaranteeing the right to an abortion, the Wilder campaign of 1989 is a reassuring memory: Perhaps this disclosure will upend the current political dynamics (which seem favorable to Republicans) and lead to a Democratic victory in November and beyond.
That brings us to our question today: Will it? And is that really the lesson to draw from Virginia’s 1989 governor’s race?
The only honest answer to the first question is “I don’t know.” No matter what happens, the mere disclosure of the draft decision will clearly energize Democrats eager to defend abortion rights. It will also likely energize Republicans eager to enact restrictions that were previously not possible. We’ve already seen evidence of both. The obvious question is which side will be energized the most? The less obvious but especially pertinent question is: Where will those newly energized voters be?
That’s why I’m not initially convinced that the abortion debate – even in a potential post-Roe world – will benefit Democrats as much as they think it might. The reason is that we live in a society that is not only politically polarized, it’s polarized geographically. We’ll see the abortion debate matter most in statewide elections – although, realistically, in swing states. I doubt there’s enough new Democratic energy to turn red states blue or enough new Republican energy to turn blue states red. Look how few states were really “in play” during the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. The abortion debate will matter in those swing states and that may, indeed, be significant in a Senate that’s split 50-50 (but with two Democrats who aren’t reliable votes for the party). That may well be enough for whichever party benefits the most, but it’s hard to imagine a complete overhaul of the nation’s political dynamics. The partisan cliffs just seem too high to climb. What states that weren’t swing states in 2016 and 2020 would a Supreme Court decision turn into swing states? Missouri used to be a swing state; in 2020, it went for Donald Trump by 15.4 percentage points. Colorado used to be a swing state; in 2020, it went for Joe Biden by 13.5 percentage points. If Democrats are going to see any tectonic shifts from Roe’s reversal, they need it to play out in, say, Ohio, a state that’s been drifting further and further into the Republican column. In 2008, Barack Obama won the state with 51.5% of the vote. By 2020, the Democratic vote share had fallen to 45.24% – which is one reason why Republican J.D. Vance is currently considered the leader over Democrat Tim Ryan in this year’s U.S. Senate race. There was a time when Ryan would have been seen as an authentic spokesman for blue-collar voters and Vance a celebrity interloper; those times are no more. If a post-Roe political environment doesn’t help Democrats turn things around in Ohio, it’s hard to see where it will – we’ll be stuck with the same set of swing states we’ve had.
The abortion debate will matter even less in anything smaller than a statewide election – meaning a U.S. House election or state legislative election. That’s not to say state legislatures won’t be tipped by this debate – maybe some will — but because of our geographical polarization, not to mention the occasional gerrymandering, there are relatively few seats considered up for grabs in any of them.
Let’s look here at Virginia. In 2020, Joe Biden won the state with 54.1% of the vote against 44.0% for Donald Trump. Let’s consider that to be the statewide mean. Only three of the state’s 11 congressional races came close to those numbers: Abigail Spanberger won the 7th District with 50.8%, Elaine Luria won the 2nd with 51.6%; Bob Good won the 5th with 52.4%. The other eight districts were all blowouts one way or another. Two had winning candidates in the high 50s. Three had candidates in the 60s. Two had a candidate in the 70s. One had a winning candidate in the 90s – Morgan Griffith won the 9th District with 94% because there was no one else on the ballot; the remaining votes were all write-ins.
The latest redistricting won’t change that much: A report by the two “special masters” who drew the lines for the Virginia Supreme Court analyzed each of the districts they drew based on previous elections. Out of 11 districts, only four fall into a range that might seem competitive: the 1st around Richmond and eastern Virginia (Republican majority of 53.2%), the 2nd in Hampton Roads (Democratic plurality of 49.6%), the 5th in Lynchburg and Southside (Republican majority of 53.0%) and the 7th in the Piedmont (Democratic majority of 52.3%). The abortion debate – any debate, really – has the potential to shift those congressional districts. But realistically, abortion is not going to change the outcomes in any of the others. All that Democratic energy in Loudoun County, and all that Republican energy in Lee County, is essentially wasted. Sorry. Now let’s zero in closer. At most, newfound Democratic energy can only tip two congressional districts in Virginia – the 1st and the 5th (and months ago I laid out some math to express my skepticism that the 5th is really a swing district). Likewise, newfound Republican energy can only tip two, as well – the 1st and the 7th. If you’re on one side or another, the prospect of taking two seats from the other side is a big deal – but, again, the impact is limited. It’s not as if the overturning of Roe is going to put a huge number of districts in play. To believe that the overturning of Roe will somehow put Republican incumbents in the Shenandoah/Roanoke Valley 6th and the Southwest 9th in jeopardy – or Democratic incumbents in Northern Virginia – is to believe in the political equivalent of unicorns.
Now let’s look at the state legislative level, where districts are geographically smaller – and thus even more polarized. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the Supreme Court throws out Roe. That will allow each state to set its own rules, so the question then becomes what Virginia will do — state legislatures across the country will matter more in a post-Roe world than they do now. Here’s one easy prediction: The 2023 General Assembly elections become almost entirely about abortion, at least from the Democratic side. Democrats will be apoplectic: They will need to retain the Senate (where they now have just a 21-19 majority) to have any hope of blocking whatever restrictions Republicans want to enact (and one of those Democrats, Joe Morrissey of Richmond, is considered not a “reliable” vote for abortion rights). Republicans will see a great opportunity: Hold the House and flip just one seat in the Senate and, with Lt. Gov. Winsome Sears presiding, they can pass whatever restrictions they want – and get that bill signed into law by a Republican governor. It seems likely that the abortion debate will suck all the oxygen out of the room. No other issue seems likely to get any serious attention.
Again, though, we have to remember that General Assembly elections are held geographically. Democrats fired up about abortion rights won’t be able to win any additional seats in Northern Virginia – they already have them all. Republicans fired up to restrict abortion won’t be able to win any additional seats in most of rural Virginia – they already have all the ones they’re ever going to win there (there’s only one Democrat in the House from west of Charlottesville, Sam Rasoul of Roanoke, and he has a strongly Democratic district).
That means this debate will be concentrated in a relative handful of districts. In the House, the new redistricting plan creates a district in parts of Roanoke County and Montgomery County that has no incumbent. It’s also officially considered a swing district – depending on which election you use as a baseline, the special masters rate it anywhere from 50.6% Democratic to 51.2% Republican. So how would the overturning of Roe (if it happens) play out in this district? This is the question both parties would like to know. An awful lot of political firepower (and money) is going to be trained on this district. Is abortion really the most important issue confronting that district – which is partly rural, partly suburban, partly college town (Blacksburg)? Doesn’t matter; it will be in 2023.
Will an abortion debate take any districts that weren’t previously swing districts and make them swing districts? If so, one place to look next year will be the Roanoke Valley, where Democrat John Edwards and Republican David Suetterlein find themselves drawn into the same district (which covers Roanoke, Salem, most of Roanoke County and much of Montgomery County, but not Blacksburg). The special masters rate this district as somewhere between 52% and 54% Republican. If you’re a Democrat, you’re hoping that if the Supreme Court overturns Roe then a bunch of suburban voters in Roanoke County decide that while they might like low taxes, they can’t stomach the prospect of a Republican majority that would vote to restrict abortion. If you’re a Republican, you can be content to remember that Roanoke County’s suburban voters are unusual in that they’re pretty conservative voters – these aren’t the Northern Virginia suburbs, by any means. Trump took 59.9% of the vote in Roanoke County in 2020, and those voters were presumably happy with his Supreme Court picks – and the possibility that he might get even more. If those Republican voters are somehow shocked by the prospect of Roe being overturned, then they simply haven’t been paying attention. (I’ve talked to plenty of Republicans who were privately appalled by Trump but sure liked his judicial nominees.)
My point is that any post-Roe political reactions will matter – but only in a small number of places. The results there will matter to us all, no matter what they may be, but it’s not as if the decision will scramble general election politics everywhere. American political views are too entrenched for that. Let’s assume the Democratic argument that there will be a huge voter backlash to the expected decision. The question is will it simply drive up Democratic margins in party strongholds such as Northern Virginia, or will it create enough Democratic voters in Republican Roanoke County to elect a Democrat to the House or dislodge a Republican from the Senate? The former is easy to imagine; the latter much harder. Even if Democrats are right generally, they need to think through the geographic realities of what’s actually needed to win a majority in the General Assembly. Republicans, of course, need to do the same, just in reverse. If Democrats are right that the post-Roe environment will benefit them, what Republican seats might be in jeopardy? That I’m not equipped to say, but I can say where they won’t be. Over the weekend, we saw a rally for abortion rights in in various communities across the country. Unfortunately for the ones in Lexington, those demonstrators are in a congressional district that is rated at least 60% Republican, a state Senate district that’s 64% Republican and a House of Delegates district that’s 67% Republican. The ones in Galax are in a congressional district that’s 70% Republican, a state Senate district that’s about 71% Republican and a House of Delegates district that’s about 74% Republican. Those demonstration will not move enough voters to chane the basic dynamics of those districts.
On the contrary, in some places, we’re going to see internal Republican politics roiled by battles over who is the most anti-abortion. I’m 100% confident in that prediction because it’s not a prediction: This is already happening. Two quite conservative Republicans who have been paired in the same district by redistricting – Del. Wren Williams of Patrick County and Del. Marie March of Floyd County – are already going after each other. Williams points to some comments March made in 2019 that he said make her sound pro-choice. (He seems right about that: She posted on Facebook that “Our choices are personal and unique. So WHY is Government even involved????? How bout let’s get Big Government out of our lives – they should neither financially support nor make it illegal.”) On the other hand, she’s now planning to introduce a “life begins at conception” bill, so the question is which should we be more influenced by: what someone posted on Facebook on what someone introduced in the General Assembly?
No matter who wins that nomination battle, though, that district will still be represented by a Republican and a pretty darned conservative Republican at that. The least Republican county in that district voted 66% Republican in 2020; the most Republican voted 80.9%. This nomination fight will be an entertaining sideshow but it’s not really going to change anything. Any changes are going to depend not on voters in Dugspur, and not on voters in Dulles, but instead on what voters in, say, Dixie Caverns think. Yes, the alliteration is cool, but voters in Dixie Caverns – as well as voters in Alleghany Springs and Bent Mountain – are in both that open House seat that could determine the control of the House as well as the Senate district where two incumbents might square off. Voters everywhere may care about the Roe decision, one way or another, but only a few are really going to get a chance to cast a vote that matters. To that extent, nothing really has changed; only the stakes are higher.