Earlier this year, several national Democratic Party leaders appeared to collectively lose their minds by suggesting – with no supporting data – that the path to reclaiming power depended on welcoming anti-abortion candidates into the fold.
Helpfully, Virginia voters have stepped forward to provide the data they were missing. Voters are enthusiastic and motivated to elect candidates who act like Democrats, and that means candidates who stand up clearly and affirmatively for abortion rights just like the party platform does.
This spring, as Bernie Sanders stood on a stage with anti-abortion mayoral candidate Heath Mello in Omaha and Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez prepared to meet with the paper tiger advocacy group that calls itself “Democrats for Life,” national press focused on the philosophical cat fight. They largely overlooked the real ground zero of this debate: the Virginia elections.
One of the key differentiators in the primary between Ralph Northam and his challenger Tom Perriello was abortion. As a state senator, Northam had successfully led the fight to relax Virginia’s transvaginal ultrasound law and during the primary gave an unequivocal “no” to a reporter from Rewire who, no doubt referencing the debate taking place among national party officials, asked if there was a place in the Democratic Party for politicians who don’t support abortion.
Perriello had voted for the Stupak-Pitts abortion restriction to the Affordable Care Act during his term in Congress and he apologized for that vote in during the primary. Though he had been personally involved in advancing an anti-abortion agenda, unlike the national Democrats fomenting controversy by suggesting a “big tent” on abortion for candidates in order to win elections in the Trump era, Perriello was able to connect dots that out-of-touch national Democratic leaders have still failed to – buddying up with the right wing and working in opposition to abortion rights won’t fly with the Democratic voters of today, even in swing states.
Ultimately Northam won the primary with a 12-point lead – and that election had the highest turnout of any Democratic primary in Virginia in a non-presidential year. In the general election, he doubled down on his commitment to abortion rights, saturating the Northern Virginia airwaves with commercials spotlighting Republican Ed Gillespie’s contention that he would like to see abortion be banned (disclosure: my daughter and I starred in that ad). That Northam ran a mild-mannered, genteel Southern gentleman’s campaign made his unflinching commitment to reproductive rights ever more notable.
Again, Northam won, this time with a nine-point lead – and winning more votes than any previous Virginia governor. But perhaps the biggest story of the night was the Virginia House of Delegates, where, pending recounts, Democrats picked up at least 15 seats previously occupied by Republican legislators. Women swept the overwhelming majority of those seats, including the poetic justice of Danica Roem, a transgender woman, sending the notoriously anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion Del. Bob Marshall to lick his wounds somewhere in the bowels of bigotry and shameful footnotes. Anti-abortion Democratic candidates were not a presence in the Virginia statehouse election, and all of the incoming new Democratic legislators are pro-choice.
It turns out that the path to Democratic victory in the age of Trump is not paved with anti-abortion candidates. Bernie Sanders, Tom Perez, and other leaders on the left in national spaces should lay off the conservative movement’s anti-abortion talking points and take a cue from Virginia voters who are getting resistance to Donald Trump done in the most spectacular and unanticipated ways. We take our cues from the millions of women who marched around the world the day after Trump’s inauguration. Those women were not confused about their bodies or their rights, and the Democratic men in the national spotlight who are should stop insulting us.
There is no such thing as a progressive opposed to abortion rights. The anti-abortion movement employs fake science, terrorist violence, and works in opposition to public health, equality, and justice. In fact, they have been fanning the flames of the big tent divide they dreamed for in hopes of having no functional opposition in policy arenas and lower Democratic voter turnout due to infighting they started. Virginia voters have proven that the answer is, no thanks.
Republicans don’t need Democrats to join them in voting to ban abortion and criminalize the women who have them, as is evidenced by the felony charges currently facing a woman named Michelle Roberts who allegedly gave herself an abortion in Virginia. Republicans are able to hang to dry with Donald Trump, and themselves.