When Lashrecse Aird started knocking on doors to run for the Virginia state Senate, most voters she spoke with had no idea her opponent, incumbent Joe Morrissey, was an anti-abortion Democrat. Now, over a year later and days away from the primary election, Aird says she believes many people in Virginia’s 13th Senate District are deeply concerned about Morrissey’s views on abortion, especially in light of Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s drive to restrict access in the state.
The primary election, set for June 20, will have an outsize impact on the fate of abortion rights not only in Virginia but across the Southeast. Youngkin has continued to advocate for a 15-week abortion ban, saying in the past that he will “happily and gleefully” sign any anti-choice bill that passes the legislature. Earlier this year, Virginia Democrats won a critical state Senate seat in a special election, giving Democrats the numbers to successfully defeat Youngkin’s proposed 15-week ban last session. But the Democrats’ majority in the state Senate is slim, 22-18, meaning every pro-choice vote counts ― and any anti-abortion lawmaker is a threat. Morrissey has said he would support a 15-week abortion ban (although he has since walked back those statements) and has a history of breaking with his party on abortion legislation.
That means Morrissey, a self-described “pro-life” Democrat, could make Youngkin’s promise a reality.
“In the past, he proudly boasted about his position, and now he’s running scared from it,” Aird said of Morrissey. “He has never been held accountable for his position on abortion, and he would love for nothing more than to change the subject.”
In 2020, Morrissey voted against legislation that would remove targeted restrictions on abortion providers, and last year he co-sponsored a 20-week abortion ban with state Sen. Amanda Chase (R), well known by her nickname “Trump in heels.” Earlier this year, when Morrissey would have been the deciding vote on a bid to codify reproductive rights into the state constitution, he abstained from voting. Virginia currently allows abortion through the second trimester and into the third if the pregnant person’s life is at risk.
Whoever wins the Virginia Senate seat will face off with Republican challenger Eric Ditri in the general election in November. The majority-minority district, which includes both rural and urban areas, is likely to go blue, making the primary race the main event.
The closely watched Democratic race has shaken up the party in Virginia. While Morrissey still has some party backers, the six Democratic women serving in the state Senate endorsed Aird in a statement sharply criticizing their colleague Morrissey. Aird has also secured endorsements from Democrats in the Senate and the House of Delegates. It’s unusual for lawmakers not to support the incumbent in their party.
“At a time when women’s reproductive healthcare and access to abortion is under attack throughout the country and in the Commonwealth, Virginia’s Democrats have affirmed repeatedly that they are unwavering in their commitment to protect the lives of women,” the Democratic senators wrote in their endorsement statement. “However, one member of the Virginia Senate Democratic Caucus has leveraged his votes on this issue as a cudgel against fellow caucus members.”
“Morrissey has a long history of being on the wrong side of the values that matter to Virginia Democratic voters,” the statement added. “His public behavior has, for years, drawn attention to himself rather than the needs of his constituents.”
Morrissey initially responded to his Democratic colleagues’ endorsement of Aird by saying that they were making abortion “the only issue” in the primary race when there are several.
In a statement to HuffPost, Morrissey said that he believes “the decision to have an abortion is between a woman and her doctor and that legislators should never tell men or women what they can or cannot do with their bodies.” He added that if an abortion ban were to go into effect in the state, there should be exceptions for rape, incest and the health of the pregnant person.
“I’m disappointed that my opponent continually mistakes my position but I have no control over that,” he said, although he went on to say that he does believe abortion should be restricted when he believes a fetus feels pain, around the 22- to 24-week range.
“This is a decision that lives in this district, but affects the rest of Virginia and other states who are depending on this [abortion] access here in Virginia.”
“To him it may sound like one issue, but to the voters that I’m talking to it’s intrinsically linked to everything else,” Aird said. “When an individual is posed with the decision of when or when not to start a family, they are thinking about their finances, they are thinking about the school systems that surround them, they are thinking about whether they live in a safe community.”
“This is not just one more issue, this is the issue,” she added.
Morrissey’s views on abortion aren’t the only thing that has pushed many of his fellow Democrats to endorse Aird. The 65-year-old is a twice-disbarred defense attorney who resigned from the House of Delegates in 2014 after he was convicted of contributing to the delinquency of a minor following a sexual relationship with his 17-year-old law firm receptionist. Morrissey married the woman a few years later and has four children with her, but the two are currently embroiled in a very public divorce.
The state senator’s history “demonstrates what an embarrassment he’s been to the caucus,” said Jamie Lockhart, the executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia. Planned Parenthood rarely gets involved in primaries, but the organization has endorsed Aird in this race ― the only 2023 primary endorsement from the group. EMILY’s List and NARAL Pro-Choice America have also endorsed Aird.
What happens in Virginia will be felt across the Southeast since the state has quickly become an improbable safe haven for abortion care in the region. Last month, North Carolina enacted a 12-week ban, and Florida and South Carolina are awaiting court decisions that could allow six-week bans to take effect.
“I am focused on the voters of this district, but it is not lost on me that we cannot get this wrong,” Aird said. “This is a decision that lives in this district, but affects the rest of Virginia and other states who are depending on this [abortion] access here in Virginia.”
Aird has made abortion rights the main pillar of her campaign, launching a “Roe Not Joe” tour last month in which she traveled around the 13th District hosting rallies and roundtable discussions on the importance of reproductive freedom.
During one event, a Virginia mother spoke about her own abortion experience at 21 weeks after she and her husband found out her pregnancy was not viable. Under Morrissey’s proposed 20-week abortion ban, she would not have been able to access the critical care she needed.
“The laws that are being proposed now ― laws that Joe Morrissey supports ― would not have allowed me to make the decision I did,” she said. “I would have been forced to carry a dying baby possibly to full term and given birth. No matter what exceptions they might include in these proposals, there is no way to cover every unique scenario that a pregnant woman might face.”
Aird’s focus on reproductive rights has apparently forced Morrissey to walk back his prior anti-choice statements. In addition to his comments to HuffPost, Morrissey told The Associated Press that he likely wouldn’t support Youngkin’s 15-week ban because he hasn’t seen any evidence to suggest that is the point at which a fetus can feel pain.
“He’s tried to move away from his voting record,” Planned Parenthood’s Lockhart said. “While he’s consistently sided with anti-abortion Republicans as a state senator, he has now been distorting his own record after recognizing how out of touch his views are with voters.”
As election day nears, Aird reminisced about the passionate conversations she’s had with voters in the year and a half she’s been campaigning. One interaction really stayed with her.
“I remember knocking on a door and speaking with a voter who looked me in the eyes and felt deep concern about the future of accessing abortion here in Virginia. Her eyes were almost watery because of the fear over what could happen,” Aird said.
“I looked at her and said, ‘When we win this election, this Democratic primary, not only will we be protecting those rights here in Virginia, for those in this district, but we will make sure that others who need to come to Virginia will continue to have that access,’” she said. “This fear that she was feeling won’t exist when we win.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article misstated that a bill codifying reproductive rights failed to pass the Virginia state Senate.