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Voters, candidates and experts agree: Abortion was critical in Tuesday primary

One year after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, women who are strong proponents of abortion rights were propelled into power in Charlottesville this week.

Amy Laufer and Katrina Callsen won their Democratic primary races convincingly on Tuesday, and the 2022 court decision may have been key to their popularity with voters in the area.

“It played an outsized role in the primaries,” Tarina Keene, executive director of REPRO Rising Virginia, a pro-abortion organization, told The Daily Progress. “It’s the loss of Roe v. Wade and the moment we find ourselves in with this election being imperative to the future of reproductive freedom in the commonwealth."

To be sure, Laufer and Callsen were not the only local candidates to emphasize their commitment to abortion access. Del. Sally Hudson, who lost in a tight race to longtime state Sen. Creigh Deeds, also made the issue a significant plank in her platform, which resonated with Democratic voters.

Leaving the polls Tuesday, Chloe Ester Cook told The Daily Progress she was supporting Hudson for a number of reasons.

“Particularly her stance on abortion, which is very near and dear to my heart,” Cook said.

Across Virginia, Democratic candidates emphasized their desire to protect abortion rights in the commonwealth, one of the few states left in the South where the medical procedure has not been severely restricted or outright banned. That puts the state in a unique position, Keene said.

“We’re seeing more and more patients coming to Virginia because abortion is legal and accessible here,” she said. “We’re determined to keep it that way but it depends on the outcome of the upcoming general election.”

In Charlottesville, at least, keeping abortion legal and accessible was a priority for every candidate. Dave Norris and Bellamy Brown, who lost their primary for the 54th District House of Delegates seat, had made the issue a key tenet of their platforms as well.

But in an interview leading up to the primary, their opponent Callsen told The Daily Progress that the issue resonated with her in a way it did not, and could not, with her male rivals.

“I’ve been pregnant before. I have children. I’ve had to go through the health care system as I’ve had a pregnancy. So I bring personal experience and investment into this issue that I don’t think either of my opponents can bring the same level,” she said.

It is also important to note, however, that both Callsen and Laufer raised significantly more money than either of their opponents. In 2023, Laufer received nearly $100,000 more than Kellen Squire. Callsen had over $100,000 more than both of her opponents combined.

Still, on the issue of abortion at least women candidates may have an inherent advantage over their male counterparts.

“Women have a lot more to lose with Roe being overturned or with an abortion ban potentially coming to Virginia,” Chaz Nuttercombe, a political analyst and director of CNalysis, a group that predicts state legislative elections, told The Daily Progress.

“Women candidates followed a trend where after Roe was overturned we saw uptick in women candidates doing even better in Democratic primaries than before,” he said. “A lot of Democratic primary voters are hungry to vote for women for everything now.”

The fact that women may have more personally at stake could help explain that trend.

“It’s hard to quantify, but it certainly would make sense that women candidates can speak more personally on the issue,” Kyle Kondik, managing editor of "Sabato’s Crystal Ball," the University of Virginia Center for Politics newsletter, told The Daily Progress.

That personal appeal can go a long way with voters. Keene pointed to House District 57, where Susanna Gibson, a nurse, told voters that immediately after the Dobbs decision, she drove to Washington, D.C., to protest at the Supreme Court. In her drive home, she decided to run for office.

“I think that really resonates with women and younger people who are finding themselves more impacted by the loss of the protections of Roe,” Keene said.

Gibson won her race over pro-abortion candidate Bob Shippee.

But Keene said the 2023 Democratic primary indicates male candidates can win on abortion too.

“I think what’s really telling is it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female in the Democratic Party. If you are unapologetically in support of abortion rights and access, voters will move to your side,” Keene said. “That’s what they want to see right now, especially in Virginia.”

Deeds’ victory over Hudson might be proof. While that contest — like any other race — was not decided by one single issue, the senior statesman appears to have been boosted by his abortion record. Not only did he receive an endorsement from REPRO Rising, but at least one voter leaving the polls Tuesday associated him with reproductive rights.

“I know Creigh Deeds has been a supporter of abortion care for a long time,” Clare, a healthcare worker who declined to provide her last name, told The Daily Progress.

Just how much a pro-abortion candidate is helped or hurt by their gender is difficult to gauge. But one thing is clear: In today’s Democratic Party, fully supporting abortion access wins primaries. That was not the case a generation ago, Kondik said.

“Across the political spectrum we would see more mixed opinions on abortion than you see now,” he said. “There would be more Democrats who held a positon to similar to Jim Morrissey.”

Keene said that Morrissey, who had been in the legislature since 2008, had tried to “play both sides of the aisle to his advantage.”

His opponent, Lashrecse Aird, “called him out and crushed him in the primary,” Keene said.

“A few short months ago I spoke to Morrissey in his office and he told me he was going to crush Aird,” Keene said. “Her race really did center on abortion rights and access.”

Morrissey’s moderation on the issue hurt his campaign. And as one local candidate learned, even the appearance of being anti-abortion can be devastating to a Democrat’s electoral prospects.

Squire’s campaign in House District 55 may have been over well before election day.

In a controversial move that Squire and his surrogates classified as disingenuous, Laufer released mailers in May that cited language Squire — an emergency room nurse who has performed abortion services himself — had written on his campaign website years before.

In those writings, Squire referred to himself as "unashamedly pro-life."

His campaign maintained that this and other lines were taken out of context. His supporters hoped that Laufer’s attack on someone they believed to be clearly pro-abortion would hurt her candidacy in the end.

“It didn’t backfire on her. The mailers were really, really effective,” Nuttercombe said.

Instead of being able to focus on policy issues, the Squire campaign found itself dealing with questions about the Laufer mailers.

“It is a classic campaign phrase: ‘If you’re explaining, you’re losing,’” Nuttercombe said.

Even the slight possibility that Squire may not be fully committed to reproductive rights appears to have scared off voters. Laufer won the race by 40 points. For now at least, for either a male or female candidate, even flirting with an anti-abortion position can be game over for a Democratic campaign.

“I would say that is right. Just look at Morrissey and the attack mailers Laufer sent. They worked,” Nuttercombe said. “If you are a pro-life Democrat, then you’re probably done for.”


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