It isn’t often that Democrats look to deep-red Kansas for resounding affirmation. But on Tuesday night, when Kansans overwhelmingly voted to keep protections for abortion rights in their state constitution, that is exactly what happened.
The size and scope of the result were a shock to even the most optimistic Democrats. Not only did voters reject a proposed constitutional amendment that would have opened the door to strict abortion laws in the Republican state, but they did it by turning out in huge numbers, dwarfing turnout in more recent primary elections and signaling that the issue can motivate even Republican-leaning voters in a state former President Donald Trump won by 15 points in 2020.
The political impact of what happened in Kansas will be most directly felt in the November midterm elections – particularly in races for governor and attorney general after the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, throwing the issue of abortion to the states. The June ruling has led to bans on the procedure being enforced in several states while opening the door to more restrictions in others. At least four other states will be voting on abortion-related ballot measures this November, but Democratic strategists are looking to the Kansas result to extrapolate lessons for states where abortion won’t be on the ballot.
“As the first state to vote on abortion rights following the fall of Roe v. Wade, Kansas is a model for a path to restoring reproductive rights across the country through direct democracy,” said Alexis McGill Johnson, president of Planned Parenthood Action Fund. “We know that Kansas will not be our last fight, or our last victory.”
Democratic and Republican operatives acknowledged Wednesday that the result in Kansas, while limited to one state, could shift the way each party approaches the midterms. Democrats, buoyed by polling and the Kansas result, will likely attempt to make abortion a top issue in key races, hoping to link their Republican opponents to the support for stricter abortion laws.
Republicans, likewise, will continue to be cautious on the issue, largely ignoring their party’s long-held desire to tighten abortion laws across the country and instead hoping to keep the focus on the economy.
“I think our Republican candidates are going to keep focusing on the issues most important to voters, and every poll keeps saying that is rising costs and the economy,” said a Republican operative working on House races.
A GOP operative working on Senate races added: “The midterms are not going to happen in a vacuum, and there are other issues that voters are considering when they cast their ballot in the fall. It is not going to be an up-or-down vote on one issue.”
Democrats were more hopeful that the Kansas result was a positive sign for the party’s midterm prospects, amid low approval ratings for President Joe Biden and rising inflation and other economic concerns.
“We already knew that the majority of Americans support abortion rights, but last night’s results in Kansas showed us that it’s also a motivating factor for voters,” said Xochitl Hinojosa, a Democratic operative and the managing director at progressive consulting firm Bully Pulpit Interactive. “We’ll likely see more Democratic candidates learn from Kansas and lean in on the threat and urgency of abortion bans across the country and start communicating that directly to voters.”
The results across the country on Tuesday, however, also highlighted a complicated relationship between voters and abortion. While Kansas voters resoundingly rejected the abortion amendment, Republican primary voters in places such as Arizona, Michigan and Missouri also nominated candidates for governor, US senator and other top positions who support enacting stricter abortion restrictions.
Republicans look for footing on abortion issue
Since the Supreme Court’s decision in June, many Republicans have been attempting to walk a fine line on abortion.
Pennsylvania gubernatorial nominee Doug Mastriano is one of the clearest examples. While running in the commonwealth’s GOP primary, Mastriano called abortion his “No. 1 issue.” Since winning the nomination, he has been less emphatic, instead arguing that it’s the “people of Pennsylvania” who will decide the future of abortion in the state. In a statement after the June ruling, Mastriano – a state senator who has backed and sponsored strict anti-abortion legislation – said Republicans “must not take our focus away from the key issues facing Pennsylvania families.”
And Mastriano is not alone as Republicans across the country try to keep the focus on sky-high inflation and voters’ sense of economic malaise instead of more controversial issues like abortion.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee put out a memo following the May leak of a draft opinion that foretold the Supreme Court’s eventual decision, urging candidates to “be the compassionate, consensus builder on abortion” and to cast themselves as willing to “listen” to people who disagree with them on the issue.
A Republican operative working on Senate campaigns said that while the Kansas result “reflects there is a lot more nuance in the politics of abortion than most people realize,” the NRSC has been advising candidates to “make up their minds how much they want to talk about the issue” but to know that “voters want to make it about the issues that are impacting their lives day to day,” like the economy.
Some Republicans also believe a focus on abortion would allow Republicans to go on offense against Democrats who oppose limits on the procedure.
“You need to press Democrats on no limits,” said Matt Gorman, a Republican strategist who was a top spokesman for the National Republican Campaign Committee in 2018, noting his party’s attempts to attack Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman for saying “no” when asked if there were “any limits on abortion you would find appropriate?”
Polls show Roe decision is broadly unpopular
Polls have consistently shown that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade is broadly unpopular and that a majority of Americans support protecting abortion rights. A CNN poll released in late July found that nearly two-thirds of Americans disapproved of the high court’s ruling, including 55% of self-identified moderate or liberal Republicans.
But the vote on Tuesday was the first real world test of that support in an era without the protections of Roe, and the result points to not just the accuracy of recent polls but to how voters – even in a deep-red state like Kansas – are energized over the issue, giving Democrats an opening.
“This is further proof of what poll after poll has told us: Americans support abortion rights. They believe we should be able to make our own health care decisions, and they will vote accordingly, even in the face of misleading campaigns,” said Christina Reynolds, a top operative at EMILY’s List, which backs female Democrats who support abortion rights.
After the draft Supreme Court opinion was leaked in May, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said a national ban on abortion was “something worthy of a debate,” acknowledging that both state legislatures and Congress would likely take up the issue.
Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a former chair of the House Republican Conference, told a reporter last month that Republicans in the chamber wouldn’t put forward a national abortion ban “before the election,” before adding, “Well, yeah” when asked if they would if they won the House in 2022.
Abby Curran Horrell, executive director of House Majority PAC, the leading Democratic super PAC focused on House races, framed the issue as one of Americans losing a key right – echoing messaging that worked for Democrats in 2018 around the issue of health care.
“Republicans want to take this right away from Americans, and Democrats want to guarantee this freedom and the freedom to control your own body,” she said. “This is taking away a fundamental right that has a major impact on Americans across the country. And Americans don’t like it when rights are taken away.”