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While Virginians seek jobs, politicians revive the abortion debate. Who’s running the Republican Party?

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University of Richmond student Amber Roudette, outside the State Capitol on Feb. 20. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • University of Richmond student Amber Roudette, outside the State Capitol on Feb. 20.

Last week kicked off with a quick blizzard, bringing as much as 5 inches of snow in a burst and catching Richmond off-guard almost as much as the summerlike wind gusts five days later. It was a suitable complement to the week’s unpredictable political climate, which reached a fever pitch and churned out as wild a week on Capitol Square as anyone could remember: Screaming pro-choice advocates lunging toward lawmakers, a thousand protestors lining the sidewalks, legislators conjuring Jesus Christ.

Seemingly out of nowhere, the politics consuming the General Assembly focused not on the budget, the economy, gun rights or taxes, but on legislation that required women seeking abortions to be subjected to probing ultrasounds. The term transvaginal was introduced to the general lexicon, and rhetoric on the floor of Mr. Jefferson’s statehouse ranged from impassioned debate to jokes about sex.

It’s a new landscape of power in which the Republicans are in complete control: A Republican is governor, and the Republicans control both houses with Republican Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling holding the tiebreaking vote in the 20-20 Senate. Few observers were shocked that social conservatives within the GOP had pent-up plans to pursue, seeking to exact some payback for years of Democratic obstructionism.

Still, no one really expected this.

“We haven’t seen anything like this in a while,” says Richmonder Norman Leahy, managing editor of the conservative blog BearingDrift.com. He likens the most recent emotional heat to Gov. Mark Warner’s 2004 tax hike, which split the Virginia GOP immeasurably. Party leaders underestimated the possibility of last week’s flurry, he says: “None of them were prepared for the ridicule … the vitriol, the counterattack.”

In many ways the abortion debate that dominated the last two weeks in February simply pushed a teetering statehouse over the edge. Gov. Bob McDonnell had sought to spotlight his economic agenda, grasping for his “Bob’s for Jobs” mantra, but the story line of God, guns and gays won out. Democrats watched helplessly while conservative legislation passed repealing the one-handgun-a-month law and requiring voters without identification to cast provisional ballots, along with measures requiring drug testing of welfare recipients and allowing faith-based adoption agencies to decline serving gay parents.

The governor initially supported the ultrasound bill, and it looked ripe for passage. And then there was the personhood bill. A more sweeping and lightning-rod measure cast as anti-abortion by opponents, Republican Delegate Bob Marshall’s measure gave legal status as persons to unborn children from the moment of conception. It also appeared to be headed for the governor’s desk.

Hundreds of protesters line the walkways at Capitol Square on Feb. 20 over two controversial bills that spark debate on civil liberties and abortion — one requiring transvaginal ultrasounds and the other granting “personhood” status to unborn children. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Hundreds of protesters line the walkways at Capitol Square on Feb. 20 over two controversial bills that spark debate on civil liberties and abortion — one requiring transvaginal ultrasounds and the other granting “personhood” status to unborn children.

But by Friday, Senate Republicans banished the personhood bill. And at McDonnell’s urging, the ultrasound bill was amended to require only abdominal, and not transvaginal, ultrasounds. Sure, it’s still a government mandate on a medical procedure, but watered down and decidedly less controversial. If the ultrasound bill passes the Senate this week as expected, it would represent a minor but important face-saving salvo for conservatives.

Where does this take the Virginia GOP? For starters, the abortion bills opened McDonnell up to intense scrutiny, the butt of jokes on “The Daily Show” and “Saturday Night Live,” among others. And despite succeeding in neutering both bills, many observers say the debacle will hamper his vice-presidential ambitions. The Republican presidential candidate at the head of the pack, Mitt Romney, needs a running mate from a state with relatively low unemployment and enough of a conservative track record to appeal to the party’s base without being too extreme. Until last week, McDonnell fit the bill nicely.

“How strongly this will resonate now that McDonnell and the GOP have backed off transvaginal, the internal as you would call it, ultrasound — that’s an open question,” says Bob Holsworth, a former political science professor at Virginia Commonwealth University and a longtime analyst. “McDonnell wants the narrative to be about the results he’s achieving in Virginia and his approval rating,” he says. “What they don’t want is the Democrats talking about McDonnellcare, and that’s the path that they were going down.”

Perhaps the most potent argument against Obamacare, Holsworth says, was the Republicans’ countervailing line “that it placed the government between the individual and their doctor.” With the state requiring ultrasounds and transvaginal probes, Republicans became vulnerable to the same argument.

In the end, though, it was about McDonnell losing his grip on the party, which predictably succumbed to a pent-up social agenda. Despite pleas from the governor in early January that GOP lawmakers not “overreach” in their first session with complete control of both houses, and, of course, the Governor’s Mansion, they did exactly that.

It’s a stunning development, Holsworth says, because for the first time in memory the governor wasn’t setting the legislative agenda.

“You’re seeing a pretty dramatic reshaping of Virginia political culture led by the legislature,” Holsworth says. “What you’re seeing in the past two months is the social agenda that has emerged has been led almost entirely by the legislature. … It raises this new political front that we haven’t seen before.”

And it’s a dangerous one, especially for McDonnell, who campaigned by shifting the focus away from the conservative social agenda and focusing on jobs and the economy. Venturing deep into social issues, some say, only will alienate the electorate.

After originally supporting the ultrasound bill, Gov. Bob McDonnell backpedals to save face, saying he didn’t realize the ramifications of the original bill. All that’s left is the political fallout. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • After originally supporting the ultrasound bill, Gov. Bob McDonnell backpedals to save face, saying he didn’t realize the ramifications of the original bill. All that’s left is the political fallout.

“What we know, historically from exit poll data, there aren’t that many people that care about these issues,” says Daniel J. Palazzolo, professor of political science at the University of Richmond. “Gay rights, medical marijuana, abortion. … I’m not sure how much reach it has beyond the activists.”

So it was rare that the ultrasound bill got such attention so quickly, turning the Virginia GOP inside out. It was all about the severity, the heavy hand of the government, well, inserting itself into women’s relationships with their doctors. Some Democrats likened the measure to a sex crime, government-mandated rape.

“The other night, there was a thing [on cable TV], Jon Stewart, ‘The Daily Show,’ saying that the government ought not be injecting itself into what should be a personal decision. And when I look at this bill that appears to be exactly what you are doing,” Senate Minority Leader Richard Saslaw, D-Fairfax, scolded Delegate Kathy J. Byron, R-Lynchburg, patron of the House version of the ultrasound bill, during a committee meeting Thursday. “And it leads me to ask you: Do you think the women in Virginia are so darn dumb that they need to be told exactly what has to be done to them by a medical procedure, and that they are incapable of making a decision without that?”

Of course not, Byron responded. It simply piggybacks on the informed consent law, which passed in 2001, requiring that women wait 24 hours before undergoing an abortion. Informed consent and parental notification, requiring girls younger than 18 to notify parents before seeking abortions, were widely supported by the public. Under former Gov. Jim Gilmore in the late 1990s, Republicans skillfully reframed the party’s abortion platform to appeal to mainstream voters. People tended to support parental notification and informed consent, and Democrats later adopted the more moderate positions, including former Gov. Tim Kaine, a U.S. Senate hopeful.

Byron tried desperately to redirect the ultrasound bill to this more moderate position, after fears about transvaginal probes hijacked the debate. “I was here in 2001 when the governor sponsored the women’s right to know, when the informed consent law was first passed in Virginia,” she told the Senate Heath and Education Committee last week. “Informed consent is providing information to women before they make a decision that could alter the life of another human being.”

Opponents of the ultrasound bill, such as Richmonder Crystal Puryear, successfully fought back by using a tried-and-true counterpunch — playing up the government intrusiveness of the measure. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Opponents of the ultrasound bill, such as Richmonder Crystal Puryear, successfully fought back by using a tried-and-true counterpunch — playing up the government intrusiveness of the measure.

Fair enough. Planned Parenthood already requires ultrasounds prior to performing abortion procedures, and it’s considered common medical practice. But no one should have been shocked that Democrats and women’s rights advocates immediately pounced on the state’s mandating of the procedure. It was straight out of former Gov. L. Douglas Wilder’s playbook.

“We had this issue, and we never tried it before,” recalls Paul Goldman, who was managing Wilder’s gubernatorial campaign in 1989. The Supreme Court had ruled in the famous Webster case that states could restrict use of state funds to either perform or assist in administering abortions. In the wake of that ruling, many political observers believed that the Supreme Court was on a path to reverse Roe vs. Wade.

Wilder’s gubernatorial opponent, Republican Marshall Coleman, had played to the anti-abortion activists within the party to win to the nomination. He took a hard line, opposing abortions even in cases of rape or incest. After internal polling showed abortion had become a hot-button issue, especially among suburban women, Wilder carefully crafted a position highlighting Coleman as an extremist, Goldman says. This was risky territory for a Democrat.

“It was presumed that coming out in any way, shape or form in favor of abortion was not possible in a Southern state,” Goldman says, “and it had never been tried anywhere.” But there was a real fear of Roe being overturned, and the Wilder campaign figured out a clever way to spotlight Coleman’s views on abortion without making the argument about Wilder’s support for abortion rights.

“We made it an anti-government thing — ‘get ’em out,’” Goldman recalls of the campaign’s television commercials. “We never talk about our position, we are on the attack all the way.” The ads started running the week after Labor Day in 1989, and immediately Wilder saw a bump in the polls. Goldman says the issue resonated, and it was key to pushing Wilder over the top. “If [Coleman] had been able to wriggle off that hook, he would have won,” Goldman says. “Every time we stopped running commercials on the abortion issues, we dropped two or three points” in the polls.

Despite the ongoing protest, Delegate Bob Marshall perhaps is the only politician positioned to benefit from the abortion-related fallout. As a U.S. Senate candidate seeking to capture the Republican nomination, Marshall plays to the party’s social activists. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Despite the ongoing protest, Delegate Bob Marshall perhaps is the only politician positioned to benefit from the abortion-related fallout. As a U.S. Senate candidate seeking to capture the Republican nomination, Marshall plays to the party’s social activists.

The Webster case stemmed from a law that passed a few years earlier in Missouri that gave unborn children legal rights as human beings — and restricting state funds from being used for performing abortions, assisting or counseling women before and after abortions either at state-funded medical facilities or by state-funded employees or physicians. Not so ironically, it’s the law after which Delegate Bob Marshall modeled his recent personhood bill. So it’s difficult to understand how the Republicans didn’t foresee the backlash lurking right around the corner.

“Some of us warned about this very thing: social issues overcoming the practical aspects of governing,” says Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan, who was among the Republican coalition that crossed the aisle to defer Marshall’s personhood bill last Thursday. The political and media flurry has kept eyes off the most significant bill, he says: the budget. If the legislature can’t come together on that legislation, he says, there’s trouble: “This thing has the potential to hold hostage all of the local governments, and their ability to put a budget together and have it ready for July 1.”

At times silent, at times raucous, the protest that engulfed the State Capitol last week forced the Virginia GOP to retreat from its social agenda — momentarily, at least. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • At times silent, at times raucous, the protest that engulfed the State Capitol last week forced the Virginia GOP to retreat from its social agenda — momentarily, at least.

Indeed, that fight was gearing up Friday. Senate Democrats were trying to cash in on the Republican meltdown, refusing to pass the final budget bill without a series of concessions. The lieutenant governor, Bolling, may be the Senate tiebreaker, but he isn’t allowed to vote on the state budget bill, which melted on the floor last week while the air outside warmed to 70 degrees.

While some abortion-rights activists filtered out of the Senate mezzanine Thursday, there was a cautious optimism bordering on surreal. Just hours earlier the personhood bill appeared certain to pass the Senate after the Health and Education Committee approved it by an 8-7 vote down the party line. But the full Senate squelched it.

“I think it shows the people of Virginia. … We’re not the laughingstock, they are the laughingstock,” says Whitney Whiting, a 27-year-old video editor, pointing to the statehouse. Whiting spent the day at Capitol Square protesting the ultrasound and personhood bills, and sees the death of the personhood bill as a clear victory.

“There are so many other things that we should be focusing on in this state,” she says. “And we need to pay attention to what [state lawmakers] are doing.”

Palazzolo says it’s too early to tell whether the attention on social issues will wane or reach into the fall elections.

“It seems to me that a lot of the focus in 2012 is still going to be on the economy, but there’s certainly going to be some room for social issues as well,” Palazzolo says. He sees abortion as potentially bigger than gun rights, for example, but it all depends. “You don’t know how long this issue is going to linger.”

And who will emerge as the party leader? “That’s the thing,” says Leahy, the blogger. “I don’t think you can point to any one person and say this person is in charge.” But it’s likely the party will shake itself off and move on, he says — especially with elections ahead. Like the windstorm that bore down on the city last week, he says, “It may leave a few broken trees in this wake, but it will pass.”

Holsworth sees the GOP’s February fallout a little differently. It’s tapping into something more than the economy. There’s a festering feeling among many voters that the country just continues to be moving in the wrong direction. It’s a cultural unease.

“If you look at the rhetoric over the last four years, it’s about far more than the economy and taxes,” Holsworth says. “The direction of America: What’s America about? What’s our culture? It’s really about the role of government. It’s an election where the economy is the dominant issue, but not the only one.”

And what about the direction of the Virginia GOP? “I think it’s easy to see, if you watch the national politics right now, that there is a dichotomy within the Republican Party, between different schools of thought,” Watkins says. “And that is creating a situation that’s going to make it very difficult to find unity at a time when we most need it. And that’s going to be this fall.”

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