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Virginia's Race For Governor Could Gauge How Texas' Abortion Laws May Motivate Voters

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Early voting is already underway in Virginia's November race for governor. It's the first major competitive election since Texas' restrictive new abortion law went into effect. For Democrats, it's also a major test of how much opposition to that law might motivate voters, even if they don't live in Texas. NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben reports.

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, BYLINE: On a warm evening outside a cafe in Arlington, Va., Planned Parenthood workers were handing out fuchsia T-shirts for canvassers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Another pink shirt?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Sure. Yes.

KURTZLEBEN: Around a dozen volunteers came to this Washington, D.C., suburb a week after Texas' new restrictive abortion law went into effect. One of them, Morgan Byrd, said that had it not been for Texas, she probably wouldn't have signed up.

MORGAN BYRD: I wish I could say that I would have, but no. This is really the far stretch that's kind of encouraging me to stand up more. This is telling me I need to be out there. I need to be spreading the word.

KURTZLEBEN: Spreading the word for pro-abortion rights candidates like Terry McAuliffe, that is. The former Democratic governor is running again against Republican nominee Glenn Youngkin, the former CEO of private equity firm The Carlyle Group. A video posted by a site called The American Independent in July raised the temperature on the state's abortion debate. It shows Youngkin saying that talking about restricting abortion will make winning harder.

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GLENN YOUNGKIN: 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.

KURTZLEBEN: In his ads, McAuliffe has plastered that video across local television markets. The Democrat emphasizes his support of abortion rights and said in a debate last week he would sign a law making it easier to get a third-trimester abortion if the patient's life was in danger.

Youngkin, meanwhile, has said he wouldn't sign a law like Texas', which bans abortions after six weeks and furthermore rewards citizens for successfully filing suit against people who break that law. He said in the debate that he supports a pain threshold bill. Those types of bills ban abortion after 20 weeks. But Youngkin is not embracing the issue as much as McAuliffe, which makes sense to Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia.

KYLE KONDIK: I think it speaks to, I think, a pretty familiar idea in politics that the side that feels more threatened by something is probably the one that gets more motivation out of it.

KURTZLEBEN: Recently, for example, McAuliffe toured a Charlottesville abortion clinic and spoke to reporters about Texas' law.

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TERRY MCAULIFFE: This is so un-American. This is pitting neighbors against neighbors, friends against friends. It is just outrageous. And that can come here to Virginia.

KURTZLEBEN: Youngkin, meanwhile, has been striving to make the race about the economy and inflation in particular, which he emphasized as he greeted shoppers at a grocery store in Woodbridge.

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YOUNGKIN: One of the things I want to do if I'm elected governor is I want to eliminate the grocery tax.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Amen.

YOUNGKIN: Because we shouldn't tax (inaudible).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Awesome. Awesome.

YOUNGKIN: We're going to bring costs down for people.

KURTZLEBEN: The Republican Youngkin is keeping the race competitive in a state that has become reliable for Democrats. A weekend poll from The Washington Post and the Schar School at George Mason University found Youngkin and McAuliffe nearly tied among likely voters.

Reproductive rights tends to be an important topic to a lot of voters, but it's only the most important topic to a small sliver of voters. But that sliver matters in a tight race, says Olivia Gans Turner, president of the Virginia Society for Human Life, which advocates against abortion rights.

OLIVIA GANS TURNER: When you have a race as tight as this and we motivate the pro-life vote to get out and do what they can do, the Democrats should be afraid because that's going to matter in this election.

KURTZLEBEN: Then again, abortion can motivate a voter even without it being their top issue. Which brings us back to Morgan Byrd, the new Planned Parenthood canvasser. I asked her what she cares about most in this election.

BYRD: I'd say for the state of Virginia, it's probably not reproductive rights just because I have a little bit more faith in them, in our leaders. So I'd say maybe things like climate change and things like that.

KURTZLEBEN: But it was abortion rights that got her out to volunteer. And still more galvanizing abortion decisions could be on the way right in the middle of the midterm campaign. Next year, the conservative Supreme Court is set to rule on a Mississippi abortion ban.

Danielle Kurtzleben, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WARPAINT SONG, "SO GOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.