|In 2012, Governor Bob McDonnell signed a bill into law that required medical providers to administer a medically unnecessary ultrasound before performing abortions in Virginia. The ultrasound bill sparked nationwide ridicule and protests over its invasive nature, and it quickly became a leading campaign issue for Democrats for election cycles to come.
The debate over choice was a defining issue of the 2013 gubernatorial race when Terry McAuliffe put Ken Cuccinelli’s extreme anti-choice stances at the forefront of the campaign. McAuliffe spent a plurality of his advertising dollars on choice and women’s access to health care, while Cuccinelli largely avoided the issue in his paid media, according to an analysis from the Cook Political Report.
Because women voters have played a critical role in statewide and local elections in Virginia – and because Republicans across the Commonwealth have given Democrats plenty to talk about in terms of their anti-choice votes – reproductive health care has remained a driving issue in Virginia year after year. In 2019 so far, it looks like choice may once again define the Virginia elections – but this time it’s Republicans who proactively put the issue front and center. From incumbents to challengers to campaign committees, Republicans have prioritized this issue in their digital advertising – even over broad health care topics or economic security issues.
On the progressive side, pro-choice groups have begun to push back against the Republican attacks. Over the course of the last two weeks, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia spent over $15,000 on ads that support nearly a dozen House Democrats, while NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia spent almost $1,500 on list-building ads that highlight the overwhelming popularity of women being able to make their own health care decisions.
Unsurprisingly, these ads are mostly geared towards a younger, female audience.
Progressives overall, however, have diversified their priority messaging. For example, the Virginia House Democrats’ campaign committee has spent over $10,000 on Facebook advertising since the midterms focused on Medicaid expansion and teacher raises rather than reproductive health care.
Meanwhile, House Republicans have spent nearly $15,000 on almost exclusively anti-choice Facebook ads. It’s become their defining message online. They, like Democrats, are targeting women more than men with these ads.
We tallied up Facebook spending from groups running ads specifically around the choice debate and found that liberal and conservative groups have spent roughly the same amount since January.
As we noted
last week, digital ads around choice continue to focus solely on Democratic candidates rather than Republicans. In contrast to previous election cycles, when Democrats leveraged reproductive health care to define the narrative against anti-choice Republicans, it’s the GOP that’s proactively using the issue to control the message. And while pro-choice groups are fronting an impressive digital effort to push back against conservative attacks, their focus remains on protecting incumbent Democrats rather than flipping Republican-held seats to win the majority.