Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin attends an early vote rally with Yesli Vega, Republican candidate for Virginia's 7th Congressional district, at the Brandy Station, Va., fire station on Tuesday November 1, 2022. Credit: Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images.

Two years ago, while running to be Virginia’s governor, Republican Glenn Youngkin was caught on video responding to a voter asking whether he would “take it to the abortionists.” He replied, “I’m going to be really honest with you. The short answer is in this campaign, I can’t. When I’m governor, and I have a majority in the House, we can start going on offense. But as a campaign topic, sadly, that, in fact, won’t win my independent votes that I have to get.” 

This year, in hopes of seizing Republican control of the divided state legislature, Youngkin did go on the offense on abortion, but it didn’t win him the independent votes he needed. Instead, Democrats kept control of Virginia’s Senate and flipped the state House of Delegates. 

Since the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision in 2022 overturning Roe v. Wade, abortion has been a political albatross for Republicans.  

In the 2022 midterm elections, reproductive rights helped Democrats win in four hotly contested U.S. Senate races (Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania) and four other gubernatorial races (Arizona, Kansas, Oregon, Wisconsin). Plus, anti-abortion forces have consistently lost ballot initiatives in states ranging from liberal Vermont to bright red Kansas and Montana. This week, voters in another red state, Ohio, enshrined abortion rights in their state constitution and overrode a six-week ban passed by the Republican state legislature. This is a state Donald Trump twice won by eight points. 

Youngkin believed he could beat the odds and thread the needle. 

He believed in poll data showing a ban on abortions after 15 weeks of pregnancy had majority support.  

He believed in focus groups conducted by his political team, which suggested women with “complicated” and “nuanced” views would embrace a 15-week ban.  

He believed in the party’s political consultants, who eschewed the word “ban” in favor of “limit.” 

He believed he could sell a 15-week ban as the “common sense” position and caricature the Democratic position as extreme. 

He believed just because the majority of abortions take place before 15 weeks that women would not see this “limit” as a threat to their reproductive freedoms. 

He believed in the $18 million he raised for his Spirit of Virginia Super PAC, much of it from a handful of right-wing billionaires, some of which paid for ads accusing Democrats of lying about the Republican position on abortion. 

And he believed in the Power of the Fleece—the sunny, suburban dad persona he deploys to mask his social conservatism and soothe moderate voters—and made himself the face of the state legislative election. 

On the Sunday before the election, Youngkin was on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, leaning hard into the abortion issue: 

Just four years ago, in Virginia, they were one vote away from the Democrats passing a bill that would extend abortion rights all the way up through and including birth paid for by taxpayer money. 

I really feel that this is a moment for us to come together around reasonable limits where we can protect life at 15 weeks where a baby feels pain, with full exceptions in the case of rape and incest, and when the mother’s life is at risk. And I think this is a place that Virginians can come together. 

All the way up through birth is way too extreme. This is a place we can come together and settle on a very difficult topic, and I think we can lead here as opposed to fight. 

This heavily researched, carefully crafted, robustly financed messaging campaign was a total flop. Why? 

First, the crux of the Youngkin position is a lie. Fetuses do not feel pain at 15 weeks.  

Second, everybody knows that the Republican Party is full of politicians and activists who do not want to stop at 15 weeks, as evidenced by the explosion of more severe bans in the most conservative states following the end of Roe

Notably, in April 2022, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis signed a 15-week ban, won re-election in November 2022, and then, in April 2023, signed a six-week ban. That erodes the credibility of any Republican trying to claim a 15-week ban would “settle” the matter forever. 

Third, Youngkin and his fellow Republicans didn’t factor in poll data contradicting their preferred narrative. In Virginia, 49 percent of voters support the state’s existing law of a ban at 26 weeks, with health exceptions, and another 23 percent want fewer restrictions. Only 24 percent want more restrictions.  

(Offering a 15-week ban in a political vacuum can poll well in part because many people are ignorant about the exact progression of a pregnancy, even people who have been pregnant. Case in point: Earlier this year, a South Carolina Republican state legislator and 53-year-old mother of three flipped on a six-week ban after coming “to realize … that women really don’t know … in most cases that they’re even pregnant.”) 

Fourth, even if Democrats wanted to “extend abortion rights all the way up through and including birth” (they don’t), they can’t while Youngkin is governor because he would never sign such a measure. Voting Republican for candidates for the General Assembly, as Virginia’s statehouse is known, would have created a trifecta allowing Republicans to run wild. Voting Democratic checks Youngkin and maintains the 26-week ban status quo. Contrary to Republican demagoguery, Roe had permitted significant restrictions in the second and third trimesters.  

Youngkin had no obligation to make the “very difficult topic” of abortion the primary issue of the state legislative election. He could have stayed in the background and allowed Republican candidates to focus on local bread-and-butter matters. He chose to make this race about abortion.  

Democrats, meanwhile, managed to skewer Republicans on abortion without ignoring kitchen-table concerns. For example, Virginia Delegate Danica Roem, who happens to be transgender, won a state Senate seat on the slogan “Fixing Roads, Feeding Kids.” (Another Youngkin whiff was using a November 3 appearance on Fox News to complain about Loudoun County’s school bathroom policies.)  

But the risk of being a nationally ambitious politician—especially a nationally ambitious Virginia governor saddled with the nation’s only single-term limit—made Youngkin a little too eager to prove his political skills. Youngkin reportedly was keeping the door slightly open for a late entry in the Republican presidential primary, but after Tuesday’s bust, he can’t easily argue he has any special ability to win back blue states. 

What Youngkin did prove is that in post-Roe America, Republicans don’t win when abortion is the issue, even when you wear a cozy fleece.  

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Bill Scher is political writer at the Washington Monthly. He is the host of the history podcast When America Worked and the cohost of the bipartisan online show and podcast The DMZ. Follow Bill on Twitter @BillScher.