RICHMOND, Va. – Gov.-elect Glenn Youngkin says he would “entertain” certain antiabortion legislation next year, but it is not part of his “day one” agenda. Gun rights appear to be on the back burner, too.
The Republican who launched his bid for Virginia’s highest office promising to “protect life before birth and after birth” and to roll back a slew of gun-control laws is focused on other matters as he prepares to assume the governorship on Jan. 15.
Youngkin was vocal about abortion and guns early in his campaign, when he was seeking the Republican nomination, then downplayed those polarizing issues after he’d won the nod and begun courting moderate suburbanites. But some conservative activists hoped – if not expected – that he would put those causes front and center again once elected.
Youngkin himself indicated that was the plan over the summer, when he was caught on video saying he couldn’t speak publicly about abortion ahead of the election for fear of alienating independents. But if he won, and Republicans took control of the House of Delegates, he said, he’d go “on offense.”
“I’m not going to go squishy on you,” he promised then.
Asked how he plans to go “on offense” on abortion now that the Executive Mansion and House have flipped red, Youngkin said last week he would consider a “pain threshold bill.” That would ban most abortions after 20 weeks, something he voiced support for in September, in two gubernatorial debates.
“I’m pro-life,” Youngkin said at the Republican Governors Association meeting in Phoenix. “I believe in exceptions in the case of rape, incest and when the mother’s life is in jeopardy. I’ve also been very clear that a pain threshold bill was something that I would entertain.”
But he also said he would tackle other issues before abortion, such as lowering taxes, creating a “great curriculum” for public schools, expanding charter schools, “funding law enforcement” and cutting back business regulations.
Any plans for expanding gun rights remain murky, beyond the nod Youngkin gives to protecting unspecified “constitutional rights” on his website. Asked recently to identify Youngkin’s firearms policy goals for the legislative session that begins Jan. 12, his transition office responded with a statement spelling out his priorities – with no mention of firearms.
“As Glenn has said, he’s getting to work laying the foundation so the Youngkin administration can hit the ground running implementing the Day One Game Plan to restore excellence in education, make our communities safer, lower cost of living, make government work for the people, and reinvigorate job growth,” the statement said.
Stephen Farnsworth, a University of Mary Washington political scientist, thinks Youngkin is wise to focus on those less-divisive goals, which probably will have broader appeal among Virginians -even if it’s a potential letdown for the rural Republicans whose historic turnout cemented his win.
“He said what he needed to say to convince Trump supporters that they should be enthusiastic, but given Youngkin’s apparently centrist tendencies, coupled with a Democratic majority in the Senate, I suspect the Trump supporters will end up disappointed if they’re counting on big changes related to election integrity, further loosening of limits on guns in Virginia or other topics that animate the Trump base.”
At least so far, antiabortion and gun-rights groups seem content to give Youngkin some space to pursue other policies first.
Victoria Cobb, president of the Family Foundation of Virginia, said she is confident Youngkin will eventually pursue an antiabortion agenda. And she said she understands if he takes up other issues first.
“Ralph Northam and his fellow Democrats are leaving a complete mess for the new administration to fix,” she said in a text message, referring to the outgoing governor. “I have no doubt Governor-elect Youngkin will work with pro-life Virginians to start to undo the massive damage done over the past four years.”
After taking full control in Richmond in January 2020, Democrats rolled back certain restrictions on abortion, including a requirement that a woman undergo an ultrasound and wait 24 hours before having the procedure. They repealed a law requiring abortion clinics to meet hospital-style building standards and passed another allowing nurse practitioners to perform the procedure.
When it comes to guns, National Rifle Association officials also signaled a willingness to be patient, particularly given Democrats’ continued control of the state Senate, which was not on the ballot in November.
After spending the past two years railing against the raft of gun-control laws passed under Democrats,the gun-rights group has a relatively modest agenda for the coming session – repeal of perhaps two laws, but more likely one, and the removal of a gun-control lobbyist, Lori Haas, from a state board six months before her term expires. (On the latter of these, it is not clear that Youngkin has the power to remove her – or any interest in doing so.)
“We don’t anticipate an overly aggressive offensive agenda in 2022,” said D.J. Spiker, the NRA’s Virginia state director.
Among the gun-control measures adopted under Democrats is a “red flag” law intended to take weapons away from people deemed by a judge to be in imminent danger of harming themselves or others. Others restrict handgun purchases to one per month, require criminal background checks for all firearms sales and give local governments the power to ban guns from their government buildings, public parks and permitted events.
“We have to actually stand up against all of the legislation that has been passed by the Democrats,” Youngkin said at a Fairfax County Republicans forum in April. “As your governor, we will not just stand up, but we will push back – we will push back.”
Some gun-rights activists expect Youngkin to stick with that plan. Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said he doesn’t mind if Youngkin is merely being quiet on the topic now for strategic reasons. But he expects action eventually.
“Gun owners are not going to tolerate being ignored,” he said.
Van Cleave, whose group typically takes a harder line than the NRA, says Democratic control of the Senate is not an insurmountable obstacle – or an excuse for inaction.
At 21-to-19, the Democrats’ majority in the Senate is a paper-thin. A few Senate Democrats have broken with their party at times over guns. What’s more, the person presiding over the chamber with the power to break ties is about to change – from Democratic Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who broke a tie to pass the state’s “red flag” law, to Republican Lt. Gov.-elect Winsome E. Sears, a Marine Corps veteran who appeared on campaign signs pairing a skirt and blazer with an AR-15 rifle.
But Spiker said repeal would be harder than it looks because to get to the Senate floor, a bill would have to get out of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where Democrats enjoy a 9-to-6 majority.
Spiker said the NRA hopes to repeal the law giving localities the power to ban guns on their property, predicting some Democratic support because the patchwork of local rules has created confusion for gun owners as they cross county and city lines. He said the group will consider pushing for a repeal of the red-flag law but sounded less than optimistic on that.
NRA officials also said they would encourage Youngkin to remove Haas from the state Crime Commission. Haas has been one of Richmond’s most prominent gun-control activists since her daughter, Emily, was injured in the 2007 mass shooting at Virginia Tech. She works as state director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and has served on the commission under the past two governors. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam reappointed her in June 2020 for another two-year term.
While appointees to some state boards serve at the pleasure of the governor, Crime Commission members can be removed only for cause under state law, according to Secretary of the Commonwealth Kelly Thomasson.
NRA officials, speaking to reporters last week on condition the of anonymity to be candid, called the presence of a gun-control lobbyist on the commission a conflict of interest. Haas said she saw no conflict.
“I was nominated as a citizen,” she said. “I’m bringing perspective of someone personally affected by gun violence.”
Asked to respond to the NRA’s request to remove Haas, Youngkin sidestepped.
“Well, there’s lots of people calling [on] me to do lots of things,” he said Saturday after attending a gathering with law enforcement officials in Chesterfied County. He went on to list other personnel changes he plans to make right away – replacing the parole board, secretary of education and superintendent of public instruction, all of whom serve at the governor’s pleasure.
Youngkin might feel some pressure from conservative legislators, including a few firebrand newcomers and those trying to make a splash as they gear up for congressional races next year.
Marie March, a delegate-elect from rural Floyd County, campaigned wearing a cowboy hat and touting the concealed-carry classes conducted in her family’s barbecue restaurants. “I ride horses, not fences!” she declares on her campaign website. “You won’t get a wishy-washy, fence-ridin’, yellow bellied politician here.”
In an interview last week, she said she was in the dark about the governor’s agenda but had no plans to rein in her own gun-rights goals once in Richmond.
“My goal will definitely be to repeal every bit of that,” she said, referring to the gun-control measures passed under Democrats. “I’ve got a whole laundry list.”
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The Washington Post’s David Weigel contributed to this report from Phoenix.
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