Last Wednesday, State Senator Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) finally conceded the Virginia attorney general’s race to State Sen. Mark Herring (D-Loudon), after his requested recount increased his margin of defeat by 800 votes. The loss highlights Virginia’s ongoing demographic change, which very closely aligns with that of the country at large. If the GOP receives the message Virginia voters have been sending, it will mean great things for the party in 2016. But if party leaders continue to ignore the electorate’s shifting attitudes on so-called social issues, the party will continue its slide into irrelevance.
Generally, an attorney general’s race won’t draw much attention or funding. But the contest between Obenshain and Herring heated up when polls revealed the race to be the GOP’s only real shot at winning statewide office in 2013. Indeed, now for the first time since the late 1960’s, Democrats control of all five of Virginia’s statewide elected positions.
So what worked for Herring, and failed for Obenshain? It would be impossible to overstate the importance of the “Personhood” bill Obenshain co-sponsored, the ultrasound law he supported and the miscarriage reporting legislation he introduced. In fact, Herring focused on these issues in his advertising.
Herring took full advantage of the fact that his opponent co-sponsored legislation which outlawed most forms of contraception and disallowed abortion even in cases of rape and incest. Only 20 percent of people polled by Gallup agree that abortion should be illegal in all circumstances. The vast majority, 89 percent, say birth control is morally acceptable. And even those who would disagree don’t generally think it’s the role of the state to enforce that belief. Obenshain was betting that the virulent pro-life voting bloc would overpower both the average voter and the virulent pro-choice bloc. He was wrong.
Across the nation, GOP leaders are making the same bets, introducing regulations on women and clinics with zero medical necessity, aimed at making it more difficult for women to obtain reproductive health care. While there was a time when the rest of the country ignored these moves, Obenshain’s defeat signals the death knell of that era.
Another slam dunk for Herring was Obenshain’s introduction of bill which would have required women to report their miscarriages (and the “location of the remains”) to the police within 24 hours, or face prison time. There is no polling data on how many people support forcing women who’ve suffered the loss of their unborn children to report to their local precinct with said children because there are only two: Mark Obenshain and Ken Cuccinelli.
Yet it’s important to point out that while failed gubernatorial candidate Ken Cuccinelli ran from his social record, Obenshain didn’t. And Obenshain was beaten less badly than Cuccinelli.
Some commentators, such as Norm Leahy and Paul Goldman, contend that the candidates lost because conservatives just stayed home, saying “Cuccinelli lost because Tea Party/talk show holier-than-thou swagger turns off Virginia’s middle class, independent, conservative voters.”
Regardless of Virginia Republicans’ feelings on the Tea Party, what the losses reveal is that the GOP needs leaders who actually walk the walk when it comes to limited government and personal freedom. On his website, Obenshain claims to have “emerged as one of the Commonwealth’s leading champions of limited government, individual liberty, and personal responsibility.”
But Obenshain’s actual record is the exact opposite of limited government and individual liberty. Outlawing contraception and abortion in every circumstance, and forcing women to report their miscarriages clearly both grow the size and scope of government while restricting women’s liberty. The only way to square his claims from his record is if he, as the left often accuses, does not consider women individuals.
Now that the GOP has been relieved of the duty of actually governing in Virginia, it’s time for them to take a long, hard look at their strategy. In Virginia, as in the rest of the nation, single women are growing as a percentage of the population. They, especially, do not take kindly to misogynistic, regressive, liberty-eroding legislation.
The good news is that the GOP will not have to abandon its small-government, liberty-defending principles to keep up with demographic trends and regain national relevance. In fact, aligning with voters on social issues, and getting government out of women’s bodies and the bedroom actually hews closer to those ideals. They’ve got enough time to digest this reality and incorporate it into their candidate choices for 2016. Let’s hope they do.