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Democrats’ Next Target: Virginia’s General Assembly

Ally Boguhn

A Democratic trifecta in Virginia could give reproductive rights advocates an opportunity to repeal anti-choice laws passed by Republicans.

The Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee (DLCC) announced Monday it would make an early investment in flipping control of Virginia’s General Assembly in 2019—a move that could have major implications for reproductive rights.

An official with the Democratic Party’s state legislative arm said at a press conference that the organization planned to make “one of the largest early investments in DLCC history” in Virginia, with an initial investment of $1 million. “Only four seats stand between Virginia Democrats and a trifecta of Democratic power,” said DLCC Executive Director Jessica Post.

Virginia Democrats made critical gains in 2017 when the party flipped 15 seats in the state house and retained the governor’s mansion. Winning control of both of the general assembly’s chambers would give Democrats a state-government trifecta, allowing the party’s legislative priorities to sail through. Republicans hold a narrow lead in both chambers right now: Flipping two seats in each would hand control to Democrats.

Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam said at the press conference that Democrats have already won several key victories since his administration took office, including progress on criminal justice reform and Medicaid expansion.

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If Democrats gain control statewide, more legislative victories await. All seats in both the state’s house of delegates and the senate will be on the ballot in 2019. A special election to fill Democratic Rep.-elect Jennifer Wexton’s seat in the 33rd state senate district is scheduled for January 8.

Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia, told Rewire.News in an interview that the reproductive rights advocacy organization has begun planning for a potential pro-choice majority in both chambers of the Virginia General Assembly. The organization has put together what Keene called “a bold agenda going into the 2019 general assembly session” that outlines “a vision for when there is a pro-choice majority in control of the general assembly and the executive branch, and we think that that is coming in 2020.”

That agenda includes acting “to repeal all abortion laws on the books in Virginia … [and] codifying reproductive rights in the code of Virginia,” expanding insurance coverage for pregnant people, and “expanding access to all reproductive health services,” Keene said.

Northam outlined similar priorities. “We believe that women should be in charge of making the decisions in regards to their reproductive health care,” Northam said in response to a question from Rewire.News about Democrats’ plans for reproductive rights if they win control of the legislature. “There’s no institution [in which] a group of legislators … a group of men, should be telling women what they should or shouldn’t be doing with their bodies. That needs to stop. As soon as we regain our majority, we will ensure that does stop.”

“There are some laws on the books right now in Virginia that represent a threat to reproductive health care—and perhaps what people don’t understand is that in order to repeal a law, the only way we can do that, is to have a majority in the house, the senate, and the executive branch,” he continued, noting that these laws would be on the table with Democratic control of the state legislature.

Virginia’s restrictions on abortion include a forced ultrasound 24 hours before the procedure, a parental consent and notification law, and “state-directed counseling that includes information designed to discourage [a pregnant person] from having an abortion,” according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Keene told Rewire.News that NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia plans to be involved in the fight for the state legislature in 2019. After forced ultrasounds became state law in 2012, she said, “we encouraged candidates and incumbents to run out loud and proud on reproductive rights and it has worked for them.”

“Every year since that time we have significant pro-choice pickups in this state,” she said. “So we know when candidates run boldly on reproductive health, rights, and freedom, that they win, and we don’t see that changing anytime soon.”

“I’m not saying that this is going to be an easy job,” Keene said, noting that there won’t be a gubernatorial candidate or Congressional candidates on the 2019 ballot, which could affect turnout.” In 2019, ”it will be a major focus to remind Virginians that, yes, there is still more electing to be done and that they need to stay focused, and we need to keep moving Virginia forward on this progressive wave that we see ourselves in right now.”

A range of anti-choice laws across the country could be repealed in 2019, after Democrats took control of many state legislatures in the November 6 midterms while breaking Republican supermajorities in other states.

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