Tuesday’s state election results suggest coming fights over abortion, religious freedom, and gun restrictions in Virginia and Kentucky.
In Virginia, Democrats won both chambers of the state legislature and will hold both the state house and governor’s mansion for the first time since 1994. The results have generated speculation over potential 2020 legislation on abortion, immigration, LGBTQ issues, and gun restrictions.
Earlier this year, the state was in the spotlight of the late-term abortion debate when Del. Kathy Tran (D) introduced one of the most radical abortion bills in the country. Tran’s bill would have removed most restrictions on second and third trimester abortions, including when the mother was in active labor.
Gov. Ralph Northam (D), when explaining the bill on the regional radio station WTOP, said that under Tran’s legislation, a baby that survived a botched abortion would be made “comfortable” while the mother and doctor would discuss whether or not it be allowed to survive, sparking a national uproar over his comments.
National pro-life groups rallied to make the election a referendum on abortion extremism. The pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List in January announced a six-figure campaign to defeat pro-abortion candidates in the state, after Northam’s comments. One Catholic resident of northern Virginia, Nick Bell, challenged Del. Vivian Watts in the 39th district and credited his decision to run to Watts’ co-sponsorship of Tran’s abortion bill.
Planned Parenthood Virginia praised Tuesday’s election results, tweeting “Huge congratulations to the new pro-reproductive health majority in the legislature!”
The president of March for Life, Jeanne Mancini, called the results “are disappointing for those who value life.”
The LGBT campaign group the Human Rights Campaign also hailed the election of a “pro-equality majority” in the Virginia State Legislature, noting the victories of Joshua Cole in the 4th district and Dan Helmer to the 40th district, and the re-election of openly-transgender candidate Danica Roem in the 13th district of the House of Delegates. The group said it invested $250,000 into the legislative races in August.
One key development behind the Virginia elections is the state’s anticipated ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). The amendment was originally approved by Congress in 1972 and sent to the states for ratification by 1979, and states that “Equality of rights under law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.”
However, the language of the amendment is widely considered to be a vehicle for abortion rights, and the Virginia Catholic Conference has noted that it could be interpreted to require taxpayer-funded support for abortion, as similar amendments in other states have been so interpreted by state and federal courts.
The original deadline for ratification of the ERA was extended until 1982, but the amendment failed to receive the necessary approval by three-quarters of the states, and five states had rescinded their ratifications by then.
However, House Judiciary Committee chair Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) has proposed a majority vote in Congress to validate the original 35 state ratifications of the ERA, which, with Nevada and Illinois voting to ratify the ERA in 2017 and 2018, would supposedly require just the support of Virginia to amend the U.S. Constitution. Pro-life advocates have said that this action would be illegal, as the original deadline to ratify the ERA has long passed.
While some pro-life groups fought to make the election a referendum on abortion laws, the issue did not play a significant role in the election, Dr. Matthew Green, a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, told CNA. Green noted that Virginia has been trending Democratic for years and thus the party’s success on Tuesday was not a surprise.
Gun violence and proposed gun restrictions, however, could have played a role, Green said. After a shooter killed 13 people, including himself, in Virginia Beach in May, Democrats proposed a slew of gun regulations but Republican leaders in the legislature ended a special session on gun laws after less than two hours.
Before the special session, the state’s Catholic bishops had called for “reasonable safety regulations for firearms and proper screening for those seeking to acquire a firearm.”
Nov. 18 was set as the date for the special session on gun laws to readjourn, just less than two weeks after the election. “It would not surprise me if Democrats took the election as a referendum on the issue of gun violence,” Green said.
A letter by Virginia’s Catholic bishops—Bishop Michael Burbidge of Arlington, and Bishop Barry Knestout of Richmond—was also circulated before the elections in September, and outlined key issues for Catholic voters to consider, including abortion, assisted suicide, religious freedom, immigration, and gun restrictions.
While “[m]any issues are important,” the bishops wrote, “[n]ot all issues have equal moral weight,” as “[s]ome actions, such as abortion and euthanasia, are ‘intrinsically evil’” and “[p]rotecting life is paramount.”
In a voter education resource, the conference warned of Tran’s proposed abortion bill, as well as legislation to require abortion coverage in private health plans and to allow for lawsuits against religious employers who abide by their religious mission.
The conference also praised some anticipated 2020 legislation, such as proposed gun restrictions, and bills to assist immigrants with transportation and education and to fight predatory lending.
Although Democrats will now control the governor’s mansion and both chambers of the state legislature, simple party control does not guarantee the passage of legislation such as abortion bills, Green said. Democrats have a narrow majority in the state senate, and some of the senators are “notoriously independent-minded,” Green said.
Also on Tuesday Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin (R) was ousted after one term by Democratic candidate Andy Beshear who enjoyed the support of Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky. Bevin lost by a razor-thin margin of 49.2% to 48.9%, and as of Wednesday morning, Beshear reportedly had declared victory while Bevin had not yet conceded the race.
During his time in office, Bevin signed legislation requiring ultrasound screenings for women seeking abortions and bills banning abortions after 19 weeks, after a baby’s heartbeat is detected, if Roe v. Wade is overturned, and banning any abortions based on the race, gender, or disability diagnosis of the unborn child. On EWTN Pro-Life Weekly he called for other state governors to “be bold” on pro-life legislation.
However, Bevin’s overall “brash” and “blunt” governing style did not win over voters, Green told CNA. Bevin challenged teachers’ unions and public universities while in office, and instituted work requirements for Medicaid recipients, possibly triggering his opponents to unite and mobilize against him.
In Mississippi, Republicans held onto the offices of governor and attorney general but the gubernatorial race was much closer than expected in a deep red state, Green said. This election showed that the Democratic voter base is highly-motivated, especially in traditionally Republican states, and is another “canary in the coal mine” for Republicans entering 2020.
The pro-life Susan B. Anthony List Candidate Fund praised the victory of Lynn Fitch in the attorney general race against Jennifer Collins who had the support of the National Abortion Rights Action League.
“Lynn is a staunch defender of life who worked hard to create a pro-life Republican platform as a member of the 2016 Republican National Convention platform committee. As Attorney General, Lynn will be a pro-life, pro-woman leader and work to uphold laws protecting unborn children and their mothers in the Magnolia State,” Marilyn Musgrave, SBA List vice president of government affairs, said.