Virginia Republicans bet big on anti-abortion smears — and lost big

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Virginia Del. Kathy Tran (D) and every one of her pro-choice colleagues were reelected on Tuesday after being demonized for wanting to protect reproductive freedom.

Virginia voters delivered a major victory on Tuesday not just to legislative Democrats but to abortion rights.

The new Democratic majorities in both Virginia's House of Delegates and Senate come despite an orchestrated attempt to smear pro-choice legislators as backing "infanticide" and a six-figure campaign by a leading anti-abortion group.

Back in January, Virginia Republicans thought they had successfully captured a gotcha-moment when first-term lawmaker, Del. Kathy Tran (D) explained to a GOP-controlled House subcommittee why she was asking them to back her abortion bill. The measure would have made it easier for women and gender minorities to access abortions after the second trimester if a doctor deemed it medically necessary.

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The subcommittee's chair, House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert, asked whether the bill would allow a doctor to abort a fetus during labor and a confused Tran incorrectly responded, "My bill would allow that, yes."

Virginia Republicans quickly began circulating the video and national conservative groups helped it go viral. "Heartbreaking," the House Republican caucus declared. "This isn't in New York, this isn't in California, this happened just this week right here in Virginia."

"If pro-abortion Democrats take the House Majority in 2019, they will legalize abortions right up until the birth of the child in 2020," they claimed.

Republicans have repeatedly argued that abortion providers across the country are already committing infanticide regularly, however there is no evidence to support that claim.

The Virginia GOP also pledged to protect anti-abortion laws and "hold the House Majority in 2019 to stop Democrats’ plan for abortion on-demand."

Tran, who was born in Vietnam, began receiving racist voicemails in the wake of that smear campaign, and she and her House Democratic colleagues received multiple death threats.

When Gov. Ralph Northam (D), a pediatric neurologist, explained the process of later abortion in a radio interview, Republicans again pounced, with some demanding he resign.

Even Donald Trump weighed in. "I thought it was terrible... what they’re doing, it’s terrible," he told the conservative Daily Caller.

The manufactured controversy ignored the fact that just 1% of abortions take place at or after the the 21-week point in a pregnancy. Tran's legislation would have simply reduced the number of doctors required to sign off on medical necessity from three to one and would have reduced the requirement that the patient's health or life be "substantially and irredeemably" harmed to simply harmed.

Days after the video's release, Susan B. Anthony List, one of the nation's largest anti-abortion groups, pledged at least $100,000 to protect the House GOP majority. "SBA List is ready to do battle in Virginia and other key states to expose and defeat abortion extremists. To echo the words of the famous abolitionist leader William Wilberforce, we can never again say we did not know."

Republicans attempted to use the abortion issue as a wedge against Democrats. Tran's GOP challenger made it a major thrust of his campaign, denouncing her sponsorship of the pro-choice bill and saying, "Orwellian social and political policy is appalling and has no place in Virginia."

But the efforts failed. Tran won reelection by a nearly 60-40 landslide — virtually unchanged from her 2017 margin. Every single other Democratic incumbent won and House Democrats appear to have gained six seats in the 100-member chamber.

Planned Parenthood Votes executive director Kelley Robinson celebrated the results in a statement.

"Reproductive freedom has won the day. Voters made their voices heard loud and clear that when politicians fail to stand up for our rights — including abortion access — we will take that fight straight to the ballot box," Robinson said.

She added, "The stakes for reproductive health care have never been higher, but these victories show that there is an unstoppable momentum for our cause and we have the wind at our backs."

NARAL Pro-Choice America also declared victory after Tuesday night's sweep.

"In 2017, voters in Virginia sent the most diverse and progressive freshman class ever to Richmond and nearly flipped the House of Delegates, a harbinger of what was to come in 2018 when Democrats took back the U.S. House of Representatives, creating the first-ever pro-choice majority in the House," the organization said in a statement.

NARAL noted that the GOP, anti-choice candidates, and right-wing groups had "used disinformation around abortion later in pregnancy and post-birth palliative care in a desperate attempt to pull out close elections."

Polling in Virginia has shown than 72% of voters believe abortion should be legal and that 68% believe a doctor should be able to determine whether it is necessary later in the pregnancy.

Published with permission of The American Independent Foundation.