Democrat Aaron Rouse Wins Key Virginia Special Election—Abortion Rights Matter January 22, 2023
January 16, 2023, the date this nation recently celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday. Had King lived, he would have been 94 this year. However, in his very short life, brutally ended in April, 1968 at age 39 by a racist assassin, he still managed to “bend the long arc of the moral universe in this country toward justice.” At Atlanta Georgia’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King was once pastor, President Biden eloquently paid tribute to him in a sermon on 1/15/2023. Biden was the first U.S. President to speak in this historic church during his administration (cnn.com, 1/15/23). Dr. King was instrumental in making our country a more “perfect and equal union” by helping white America understand that the ideals in our Declaration of Independence and the Constitution must also include African Americans. Yes, Blacks won their freedom from slavery during the Civil War and received the protection of the 13th , 14th , and Fifteenth Amendments after this bloody conflict to destroy the ”peculiar institution” of slavery. However, the Jim Crow segregation system, enacted by the South and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, kept Blacks in a “separate and truly unequal” position as second-class citizens for over 100 years after the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. It took the eloquence and courage of Dr. King to force Congress to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act and 1965 Voting Rights Act which made the South and other regions employ Blacks and, importantly, give them the right to vote with no intimidation. Since the passage of the Voting Rights Act, signed by LBJ, Blacks have been elected in the South and throughout the country to many federal, state, and local offices. African Americans have been elected representatives in both black majority districts as well as in areas where they constitute a minority of the voters. Black representation has made and continues to make a difference in all areas of the country, not only on civil rights issues, but also, in supporting better health care and improving education. Black lawmakers have pushed for women to have the right to abortions, after the Supreme Court’s awful Dobbs decision that overturned “Roe v. Wade.” Let’s look at the recent special election in VA where African American Aaron Rouse, emphasizing a women’s right to choose, won a very swingy district.
On January 10, 2023, Democrat Aaron Rouse (39) won a special election for the VA State Senate 7th District (SD) over GOP nominee Kevin Adams, also an African American (nbcnews.com, Richards, Z., 1/11/23, kevinadamsforsenate.com). This race was a nail-biter. Rouse won by 348 votes or 19,430 votes to Adams’ 19,082 (wavy.com, Reese & Fox, 1/11/23). However, a “win is a win” and this victory was extremely important for several reasons. It was the first special election of 2023 and gave a boost to President Biden and his fellow Democrats’ policies, both locally and nationally. This special election in which Democrat Rouse defeated Republican Adams also flipped the VA 7th SD into the Democratic camp. Democrats in VA now have a 22-18 margin in the Old Dominion State Senate. This special election gives Democrats more of a “brick blue wall” to check both the GOP-dominated VA House of Delegates and Republican Governor Glenn Youngkin’s reactionary policies. This special VA State Senate election was held to replace GOPer Jen Kiggans. In the 11/2022 midterm, 7th District State Senator Kiggans won a congressional seat in the VA 2nd district (CD). Kiggans flipped that seat “Red” when she defeated Democratic incumbent Rep. Elaine Luria by 4 points. Kiggans’ win helped GOPers retake the House by a 4-seat margin and made Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) the House Speaker (See Early Guide, 118th Cong. At Your Fingertips, nbcnews.com, King, K., pilotonline.com, 1/18/23).
Most importantly, this VA special election was widely viewed as a fight over abortion. GOP Gov. Youngkin and his GOP legislators want to pass a bill that would ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy, instead of VA’s current threshold of 26 weeks. When Youngkin ran for Governor in 2021, he downplayed his opposition to abortion so as “not to alienate independent voters (Pope, wvtf.org/post/hot-mic, 7/08/21, washingtonpost.com/local/virginia-politics).” Unfortunately, he got away with it. Now, in his 2023 State of the Commonwealth address, Youngkin did not in any way hide his true beliefs. He called on VA legislators to pass a 15-week abortion ban. Special election GOP candidate Kevin Adams, a retired Navy lieutenant commander, stated he would back Youngkin’s 15-week ban (Richards, 1/11/23). Rouse, who received a congratulatory phone call from President Biden on the day after his win, tweeted Gov. Youngkin, “I’ll always defend women’s reproductive rights (nbcnews.com, Richards, 1/11/23).” Rouse’s campaign messaging focused heavily on blocking GOP efforts to restrict abortion rights in the Old Dominion. After his 1/10/23 election win, Rouse stated that blocking GOP efforts to restrict abortion would be his number one priority when he went to the State Senate in Richmond. In Rouse’s words, “1-2-3, 1, we are going to protect a woman’s right to choose health care, we are going to build an economy that works, and we are going to support our public education system (wavy.com, Reese & Fox, 1/0/23-1/11-23).” Rouse told the Virginian-Pilot that his “most pressing concern is fighting back against any effort to restrict abortion access.” Rouse added, “I think obviously my election sent a signal that we are going to protect women’s reproductive rights (pilotonline.com, King, K., 1/18/23).”
A spokesperson for the VA Democratic Party, Liam Watson, said he believed the GOP’s focus on restricting abortion ultimately cost them Kiggans’ State Senate seat. The debate over reproductive rights in VA heated up after the Supreme Ct. overturned “Roe v. Wade” last summer. In Watson’s words, “They (the GOP) are the dog that caught the car, and now they’re going to have to bear the consequences (pilotonline.com, King, 1/18/23).”
The VA 7th SD is one very swingy district where restricting abortion rights does not play well. The Commonwealth of VA’s 7th Senate District (SD) is one of 40 seats in that chamber. The VA (SD) 7th is located in the Hampton Roads metropolitan area in the state’s2020 southeastern part. The SD 7th includes much of Virginia Beach and a small part of the city of Norfolk. The VA 7th SD is 59% White, 21% Black, 9% Hispanic, and 7% Asian. As of 2019, the VA 7th SD had a population of 208, 440 people with 142, 498 registered voters (censusreporter.org, “Registration Counts by District Type, elections.virginia.gov, apps.senate.virginia). The VA 7th SD is located entirely within VA’s 2nd Congressional District, CD (Jarman, D., dailykos.com). The Old Dominion’s 2nd CD includes Virginia Beach, that state’s largest city with a population of 450,000 (Cohen & Cook 2022 Political Almanac). Virginia Beach has a metropolitan area of 1.7 million people that is centered on the local Navy community, which includes active duty and civilian personnel, workers, dependents, and retirees. Before the COVID pandemic hit, 19 million tourists visited this area. Norfolk and Virginia Beach are permeated by military culture (Cohen & Cook 2022). Besides the military, Virginia Beach is the headquarters of evangelist/politician Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network. Right-wing Pat Robertson is the son of the late segregationist Dixiecrat U.S. Senator A. Willis Robertson (See Cohen & Cook 2022). In recent decades, Virginia Beach has narrowly leaned GOP. In 2016, Donald won the 2nd by 3 points. In 2020, however, Joe Biden took Virginia Beach by 6 points and the entire 2nd by four points. The latest Cook PVI, Partisan Voting Index, gives the Old Dominion 2nd a mere R+1 score, making this area and the VA 7th which it contains constantly up for grabs (See Cohen & Cook 2022, Jarman, kos.com).
VA 7th SD Democratic winner Aaron Rouse graduated from Virginia Tech where he was a star football player. From 2007-2012, he played professional football for teams including the Green Bay Packers, the New York Giants, and the Arizona Cardinals (wavy.com/news/politics, 1/11/23). In 2018, Rouse ran for an at-large seat on the Virginia Beach City Council and won the most votes (Minium, H., 4/07/18, Parker, Coutu, & Skelton (11/06/18). He served on that council from 1/01/19-12/31/22. After State Senator GOPer Kiggans won election in 11/2022 to the 2nd Congressional District, Rouse successfully ran to replace her in the 1/10/2023 VA 7th Senate District special election (wavy.com/news/politics, 1/11/23). He was sworn into office on January 18, 2023. According to his staff, Rouse will sit on several committees including the local government panel and general laws and technology committees (wavy.com/news, Mirshahi, D., 1/19/23).
What can we learn from Rouse’s victory? Again, Rouse won by an extremely narrow margin, 348 votes. That means that EVERY vote counts and that Democratic turnout is EVERYTHING. In the last midterm election, we saw that when Democratic turnout was strong, mainly in highly contested battlegrounds, such as Michigan and Nevada, “Team Blue” won not only with the help of Democratic voters, but with swing voters and GOPers as well. Where Democratic turnover was low as in NY, “Team Blue” suffered several losses. One such loss occurred in that state’s 3rd Congressional District where Long Island “supreme liar” George Santos, or whatever his name is, won a district that Biden carried in 2022 (See latimes.com, Lauter, D. 1/20/23). Finally, Supreme Court Justice’s Alito’s opinion overturning a woman’s right to abortion is a winning issue throughout most of the country and must be emphasized in Democratic contests at both the national and state level. The right for women to have abortions can never be taken for granted.