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Women in suburbs like Virginia Beach are likely to decide control of the General Assembly

A voter speaks with Republican Del. Karen Greenhalgh (right). Greenhalgh is running in Virginia Beach’s 97th House District – one of the key suburban swing districts that will likely decide control of the General Assembly. (Photo by Mechelle Hankerson)
A voter speaks with Republican Del. Karen Greenhalgh (right). Greenhalgh is running in Virginia Beach’s 97th House District – one of the key suburban swing districts that will likely decide control of the General Assembly. (Photo by Mechelle Hankerson)
http://assets.whro.org/pod_231026_WOMENVOTERS_MURPHY.mp3

Control in the state House of Delegates and the Senate will hinge on a few key races in the suburbs of Northern Virginia, Richmond and central Virginia Beach.

Virginia’s suburbs were reliably conservative areas where Republicans reigned for decades.

But women - specifically white women without college educations - are less loyal to political parties, making where many of them live political battlegrounds. 

“I don't think we can overestimate the importance of these groups like suburban white women who do bounce back and forth between Republicans and Democrats or have in the past few elections,” said Leslie Caughell, who researches women voters at Virginia Wesleyan University.

Joe Biden carried the lion’s share of voters in places like Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Northern Virginia’s Stafford County during the 2020 presidential election.

Those same suburbs shifted in 2021 to propel Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin to victory.

Caughell says that swing happens for several reasons.

These women don’t vote for Democrats because they’re liberal; on the contrary, she said they’re typically moderate conservatives at their cores. 

But white women are willing to support Democrats in part because they’re much more sensitive to the rhetoric used by party leaders.

“This voting group seems much more likely to say, ‘I'm going to buck my party here, acknowledging the fact that my values, my fundamental underlying values haven't changed, that I don't think this Republican Party is capturing my conservatism,’” Caughell said.

This is part of what pushed them away in recent years, as the notoriously crass Donald Trump held a stranglehold on the Republican Party.

“They find this kind of divisive political rhetoric more off-putting than do men,” Caughell said. 

“Playing into the cultural issues in that way, you might be able to pull some people along, but you run the risk of pushing more people away then you pull into your camp.”

Political parties have taken note of this critical demographic. Caughell said she sees candidates “trying to make these elections about what we've traditionally understood to be women's issues.”

Primary among those issues: abortion. Virginia’s Democrats have framed this year’s election as a do-or-die to preserve abortion access in Virginia.

Meanwhile, Youngkin has been stumping to try to soften the image of Republicans’ abortion policies, reframing abortion bans as “limits” instead. 

Republicans are also focusing on education issues, which was part of Youngkin’s winning formula in 2021. But Caughell said 2023 is a whole different ballgame as education policy discussions turned from school closures during covid to limiting access to certain books and learning material and rules around transgender students.

“I don't think these play quite as cleanly,” Caughill said. “That education issue has gotten to be a little bit more complicated than I would imagine Republicans hoped when they were putting that out there as a way of appealing to this group of voters.”

Ryan is WHRO’s business and growth reporter. He joined the newsroom in 2021 after eight years at local newspapers, the Daily Press and Virginian-Pilot. Ryan is a Chesapeake native and still tries to hold his breath every time he drives through the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel.


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