Kansas offers abortion playbook for Democrats ahead of November midterms
By Gabriella Borter and Joseph Ax
(Reuters) – A decisive victory for abortion rights in deeply conservative Kansas has boosted Democrats’ hopes that they can harness voter anger over efforts to limit or ban the procedure to prevail in competitive races and other U.S. state referendums in November.
Political analysts and organizers had anticipated an uphill battle to defeat a Republican-backed constitutional amendment that would have enabled lawmakers to restrict abortion in Kansas.
Instead, the primary election on Tuesday drew record turnout. Almost half of registered voters cast ballots, and nearly 60% rejected the amendment. Abortion rights advocates outperformed expectations across the state, from rural to urban areas.
A day after the landslide win, Democrats and abortion rights campaigns across the country said Kansas showed how to galvanize voters despite concerns about the economy ahead of the Nov. 8 midterm elections.
The main coalition opposing Kansas’ proposed amendment credited the success to winning support from moderate Republicans, independents and voters ambivalent about abortion — in addition to Democrats, who make up only about 26% of registered Kansas voters.
“We found common ground among diverse voting blocs and mobilized people across the political spectrum to vote no,” said Rachel Sweet, campaign manager for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom.
Early results showed Kansas’ abortion rights campaign outperformed Democratic candidates from past elections across the state, a testament to bipartisan support. In 14 counties that went for Republican Donald Trump over Democrat Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election, the “no” vote prevailed.
Leavenworth, a suburban county near Kansas City that Trump carried by more than 20 percentage points, rejected the amendment 59.3% to 40.7%. In rural Lyon County, which has not supported a Democratic presidential candidate in more than five decades, nearly two-thirds of votes favored protecting abortion rights.
The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that legalized abortion nationwide, fueled support for the “vote no” campaign, organizers said. The Kansas vote was the first statewide political test of abortion rights since the ruling, which advocates said drove volunteer and voter engagement.
Connie Broockerd, a 69-year-old retired insurance agent from the Kansas City area who is not registered with a political party, said her shock at the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade made abortion a more salient issue for her and locked in her “no” vote on the amendment.
“I never thought (Roe) would be overturned,” Broockerd said. “Since it has been, it’s like, now I have to pay attention to that.”
In Wednesday remarks on the Kansas vote, Biden said the Supreme Court “practically dared women in this country to go to the ballot box and restore the right to choose.”
Stripping abortion protections from the Kansas constitution would have allowed the state’s Republican-led legislature to restrict or ban abortion. Kansas allows abortion up to 22 weeks of pregnancy with several restrictions, and polls show a majority of residents oppose total abortion bans.
Republicans believe voter angst over inflation could overshadow public backlash to the Roe ruling and propel their party’s candidates to victory.
The Kansas initiative, a narrow question about abortion, gave voters an opportunity to express themselves on the issue specifically. In November, with more issues in the mix, Republican voters who favor abortion rights may not be willing to cross party lines and support Democratic candidates, analysts said.
But Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who has led several anti-Trump efforts, said her research suggests that abortion could peel swing voters away from Republicans – especially in states such as Pennsylvania and Arizona, where Republicans have nominated hard-right statewide candidates.
In focus groups, including with suburban, college-educated moderates likely to be key swing votes in November, Longwell said voters express deep unease with abortion bans and say the issue will affect their electoral choices. If Democrats emphasize abortion rights in their campaigns, they could win, she said.
“If you ask people right now, ‘What are you worried about?,’ they’ve been very focused on the economy,” she said. “But when you ask specifically about abortion, they’re like, ‘I’m super upset about that.”
The Kansas vote was the first of several statewide referendums on abortion rights this year, with similar questions appearing on ballots in Kentucky, California and possibly Michigan in November.
In Kansas, opponents of the amendment said they emphasized themes of bodily autonomy and individual freedom to win over voters with complex views on reproductive rights. Advertisements leaned into many Kansans’ reluctance to allow the government to intervene in personal healthcare decisions, encouraging voters to “say no to more government control.”
An abortion rights coalition in Kentucky is employing the same messaging to fight a similar proposed constitutional amendment.
Heather Ayer, campaign coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, said focus groups have shown that emphasizing personal liberty in medical decisions is popular.
“Freedom is a big part of what people are thinking when they’re going to vote on a constitutional amendment,” Ayer said.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Joseph Ax; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Osterman)