Kansas vote on abortion broke the mould. Party strategists now have to figure out what it means

Strategists across the American political spectrum were busy reading the tea leaves this week, trying to intuit what a vote on abortion rights in Kansas that upended many of the expectations for primary elections in a red state might mean for the November midterm elections.

A surprisingly high turnout and a vote overwhelmingly in favour (59 per cent to 41 per cent, according to unofficial estimates) of retaining state constitutional protections for abortion surprised many and holds lessons for Democrats and Republicans, say analysts.

“We have here pretty clear evidence that abortion can motivate voters,” said Gerald Seib, a fellow at the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics in Lawrence, Kan., and former Washington editor at the Wall Street Journal.

Polling firm co/efficient adjusted its models 300 per cent above historical averages, president Ryan Munce said, after voter registrations in the state surged in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of the Roe v. Wade decision in June. But he said they still undershot, not anticipating that almost half the Kansan electorate would turn out to vote, far above the 20 to 30 per cent that is usual in primary contests.

“We rarely see movement in turnout demographics this far outside the norm,” Munce said in an email to CBC News. “In Kansas … Voters broke all the models.”

WATCH | Pro-choice advocates hope Kansas result can galvanize voters in November

Kansas votes to protect abortion access, sparks hope for pro-choice groups

Voters in conservative Kansas resoundingly affirmed support for access to abortion, a major victory for pro-choice groups. This comes as U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order to protect travel for abortion.

Independents, moderate Republicans were key 

The ballot measure that sought to overturn a 2019 state Supreme Court decision on the constitutional protection of abortion also bucked trends when it came to voting along party lines. 

In a state almost entirely controlled by Republicans, except for the governorship, the vote against the measure was almost exactly the reverse of the 56 per cent to 42 per cent Republican-Democrat split seen in the 2020 presidential election. 

Voters in Wyandotte County mark their ballots. The high turnout, unusual for a primary, surprised many, as did the result of the abortion referendum, which suggested that even in a strongly conservative state such as Kansas, voters were not willing to support a possible outright ban on abortion. (Eric Cox/Reuters)

“This would be interesting anywhere, but the fact that it was ruby red Kansas really puts an exclamation point on it,” said Charles Sykes, a Wisconsin-based, moderate Republican who founded the conservative news site Bulwark.

The preliminary numbers suggest independents, who can’t vote in Kansas primaries so were only drawn out by the ballot measure, and moderate Republicans had to have played a part in the unusually high turnout.

“It is what Democrats have to hope for, that they can pull independents back to their side, and maybe this suggests abortion can help them do that,” said Seib.

Democratic state Rep. Stephanie Clayton reacts to election returns on the abortion referendum at the Overland Park Convention Center. Republicans have the majority in the state house and Senate in Kansas but the governor is a Democrat. (The Topeka Capital-Journal/The Associated Press)

Normally, those who care about the abortion issue the most are the bases of the respective parties, but in this vote, middle-of-the-road swing voters and a large majority of Democrats overcame their disaffection with the Biden administration and braved 30-degree heat to cast votes against the measure.

“Quite healthy turnout for both of those two groups might be a sign of more engagement to come,” said Patrick Miller, an associate professor of political science at the University of Kansas in Lawrence

What it means for Democrats in midterms

However, he and others cautioned against mapping the results of a referendum on a single issue onto the general election.

“Is abortion now back as an issue that can be a decisive issue for a swing voter? Kansas makes us think possibly so, but we’ll have to see how that plays out in the fall,” said Miller.

Christina Reynolds of Emily’s List, which works to elect more female pro-choice candidates to office, is confident the Kansas turnout is a sign abortion can drive people to the polls and said candidates the organization works with are already campaigning on the issue. 

Gabby Lara, with Students for Life, canvasses in a suburb of Kansas City, urging residents to vote ‘yes’ on a proposed amendment that would reverse a court decision that found that the state constitution does protect the right to abortion. (Gabriella Borter/Reuters)

“Democrats have been facing an enthusiasm gap … and we believe that this changes that dynamic,” she said.

“We know that the majority of voters are with us on this issue because fundamentally, what they support is the freedom to make your own decisions.”

Other Democrats are more cautiously optimistic.

“It is an indicator, but not the indicator of what the midterms are going to be,” said South Carolina-based strategist Antjuan Seawright. “Quality of life issues still run the day in any given election.”

Democratic activist Anne Melia prepares to go door knocking in Merriam, Kan. The two sides in the ballot measure spent millions of dollars on their respective campaigns and tried to reach out to voters directly. (John Hanna/The Associated Press)

He said strong turnout in bellwether districts, such as Johnson County in the east, the state’s biggest and where the pro-choice vote was higher than support for Biden in the 2020 election, suggests suburban voters, especially white women, will be critical to Democrats’ success in the fall.

“In this midterm, probably more than any other midterm in recent history, you will find an expanded number of people who would identify as being independent,” Seawright predicted, stressing that could include registered independents and those who simply vote independent of their party on certain issues.

Miller, for his part, said that while a ballot measure may not be a typical partisan vote, the fact that the post-Roe spike in voter registrations leaned disproportionately independent and Democratic suggests Republicans who put the abortion question on the ballot miscalculated, assuming independents would have no reason to turn out in the primary.

“People assume abortion is a hyper-polarised issue, and if you look at the people who are 100 per cent either way, it is, but that’s not the typical American or the typical Kansan,” he said. “The typical person supports a basic right to access abortion services, but with certain limitations.”

Most Americans support some access to abortion

That backs up what a survey by Harvard and three other universities conducted in all 50 states over four weeks in June and July found. 

Slightly more than 60 per cent of Kansas voters who responded said they support abortion access in cases of rape or where the woman’s life is in danger compared to about 15 per cent who oppose it in those cases. Twenty-nine per cent support access for pregnancies after six weeks and 18 per cent beyond the point at which the fetus is considered viable. And those numbers were similar for the U.S. overall.

For Sykes, the Republican commentator, the Kansas results are a sign that the full implications of the overturning of Roe v. Wade have not fully sunk in yet for his party.

“You can see there’s a little bit of confusion on the part of Republicans — how far do they want to go?” he said. “Even though we’ve been fighting about abortion for 50 years, we haven’t really had a debate with the real world consequences like we do now. So, this is really just beginning.”

Kelly Brende and Erin Woods of the Vote No campaign speak with Justine Kigenyi in Lenexa, Kan., on Aug. 1. (Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

Democratic strategist Rachel Gorlin agrees that since the Supreme Court decision, Republicans have been struggling to answer the question, “What now?”

While both parties have always framed the abortion debate in terms of extremes, she said, it’s becoming harder for Republicans to paint Democrats as the extremists when some of the most vociferous voices on their side are calling for a complete ban on abortion.

“For the people who really do support a complete ban, I think you’ll find that most of those people aren’t in competitive districts,” Gorlin said.

She said anti-abortion Republicans won’t be able to avoid talking about the issue completely in midterm campaigns but will need to assure voters they’ll protect abortion in the extreme cases and “leave it at that.”

For Democrats, the smart strategy, she said, is also to highlight those difficult cases, such as the 10-year-old victim of rape who was denied care in Ohio, which has no exceptions for rape or incest, and was sent out of state for an abortion.

“You don’t have to go all that deeply into the Republican electorate who opposes abortion rights. In order to win; you have to just do your outreach to those Republicans who have doubts about the government telling families how to deal with a crisis pregnancy.”

A yard sign in Wichita. Those campaigning in favour of the amendment appealed to notions of safeguarding the lives of women and babies in their messaging. (Gabriella Borter/Reuters)

Telling the truth pays, pro-choice advocate says

That was largely the strategy adopted by pro-choice advocates in Kansas. TV ads focused on framing the amendment as a “government mandate” that would interfere with private medical decisions and pitted the vote as a choice between government control and religious freedom.

Pro-choice advocates highlighted the fact that Kansas already regulates abortion, outlaws taxpayer funding for it and requires parental consent. They also made the case that eliminating constitutional protections would be an extreme step that could cut off access completely. 

Yard signs in Wichita, Kan. Pro-choice advocates tried to frame their message around ideas of freedom and liberty. Both sides accused each other of misrepresenting what the amendment was about. (Gabriella Borter/Reuters)

“We stuck to what was really in the amendment,” said Emily Wales, the president of Planned Parenthood Great Plains, which provides abortion care in Kansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas. “It pays to tell people the truth.”

She said the fact that pro-choice advocates could point to neighbouring states and show that losing virtually all access to abortion was a real possibility some Americans were already living with helped their message resonate with voters.

It’s on those states that advocates will now focus their efforts, Wales said.

“When care is not available at the local level, it is not truly accessible, so we are committed to the long-term fight to restore care across the four states we serve.”

WATCH | Easing interstate travel for abortion focus of new executive order: 

Biden signs executive order protecting travel between states for abortion

U.S. President Joe Biden signed the executive order aimed in part at making it easier for those seeking abortions to travel between states. It’s the second executive order Biden has signed regarding abortion rights in the wake of the Supreme Court’s decision in June that overturned Roe v. Wade.

More ballot initiatives possible

The Kansas example suggests ballot initiatives might be one way to safeguard access to abortion in a post-Roe world and get around the partisan baggage, Miller said.

“The ballot initiative process is going to be, I think, a much smarter strategy than assuming that you’re going to fundamentally change voting patterns just by campaigning on abortion,” he said.

That said, Democrats should not expect that this will necessarily translate into votes. 

“There are a lot of Republicans out there who favour the basic right to have an abortion, but yet they consistently vote for candidates who are against that right because abortion is typically not the most important issue to them,” Miller said.

“Democrats shouldn’t expect those voters to all of a sudden become abortion voters and start voting pro-choice.”

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By Jon Doe