How abortion rights were won in conservative Kansas

For abortion rights activists, Kansas voters’ overwhelming rejection on Tuesday of an election measure that would have allowed Republican lawmakers to restrict or ban the procedure isn’t just an unexpected victory in the conservative state.

It is a roadmap for future battles.

Activists say their campaign – the first major public test of abortion rights since the US Supreme Court struck down the Constitutional right to abortion in June – provides lessons for upholding the right to abortion. abortion across the country.

“There is a way to fight back,” said Emily Wales, President and CEO of Planned Parenthood Great Plains. “We want to say to people living in states that have lost their rights, who feel defeated, that Kansas is showing that it can be done. And it doesn’t have to be in a completely progressive state.

The ballot measure would have removed the right to abortion from the state constitution, but 59% of voters rejected it – a result that suggests Republicans face a major political backlash for Roe’s loss to Wade before the midterm elections in November.

Anti-abortion activists say the result in Kansas suggests their supporters may have become complacent since the Supreme Court ruling.

Penny Nance, president of the anti-abortion group Concerned Women for America, says their opponents now seem more forceful.

“We’re still going to have to do the hard work,” she said.

Meanwhile, elated abortion rights activists have issued their own stark warnings that Democrats should not take this new pledge for granted.

“Has this decision angered and called people to want to come forward and do something? Yes,” said Cristina Uribe, Director of Advocacy and Policy Strategy at the Gender Equality Action Fund. “Will this translate [into] vote for a Democratic candidate? I do not know.”

In Kansas, where Registered Republicans and Unaffiliated voters vastly outnumber Democrats, abortion rights activists have worked overtime in recent months to build a broad coalition, using the language of personal liberty. and individual rights.

“We found common ground among the various electoral blocs and mobilized people from across the political spectrum to vote no,” Rachel Sweet, campaign director for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, told reporters on Wednesday.

“Kansans from all political backgrounds believe in personal liberty and liberty,” she said. “They understand that we must protect our constitutional rights and freedom to make private medical decisions, including those regarding abortion.”

The campaign against the measure has attracted not only abortion rights groups such as Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, but also the League of Women Voters of Kansas, the Mainstream Coalition and other groups that tailored their messaging to moderate conservatives and independents. He also enlisted Catholics for choice and more than 70 state religious leaders.

In an ad, Kansans for Constitutional Freedom presented the measure as a “strict government mandate designed to interfere with private medical decisions” and showed images that linked abortion restrictions to vaccine and mask mandates.

“We need to be able to have conversations with people who don’t agree with us, or maybe don’t agree with us on all counts, but share the common goal of protecting the personal autonomy of people, their constitutional rights to make those decisions for themselves,” said Ashley All, the group’s communications director.

The measure appeared on the ballot alongside primary races for congressional seats. Supporters and opponents knocked on tens of thousands of doors and spent millions of dollars on advertising, and the turnout of nearly half of the state’s registered voters was unprecedented for a Kansas primary.

Abortion rights gained massively in suburban Kansas City, but also gained more support than expected in more rural, conservative areas of the state.

At least half of the Kansans who voted on Tuesday had never voted in a primary before. Those who voted early were overwhelmingly female and more likely to be Democrats, said Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic political data firm.

“Clearly women were just much more intensely engaged in this election, and that resulted in much higher turnout,” he said.

After the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade on June 24, Kansas saw a big shift in who registered to vote, with big surges of women and Democrats being added to voter rolls, Bonier said.

The result reflects what polls have long shown: a majority of Americans support abortion rights. In a Pew survey released last month, 61% said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and more than half of those polled said they disagreed with the court’s ruling. supreme.

The result bucks a recent trend in Republican-leaning states. Over the past eight years, voters in Louisiana, Alabama, West Virginia and Tennessee have approved amendments stating that their states do not protect the right to abortion, said Elizabeth Nash, policy analyst at report for the Guttmacher Institute, based in Washington.

The Supreme Court ruling has already resulted in the loss of abortion rights in Southern and Midwestern states. It also brought a stream of media coverage of complicated cases, including those of women whose doctors refused to perform abortions even when their fetuses died or their pregnancies were not viable – and the saga of one victim 10-year-old rapist in Ohio who had to leave the state to have an abortion.

“It’s important to see that the tide may have turned,” Nash said. “Essentially the rubber hit the road. It is now the reality that there is no federal protection for the right to abortion, and people are seeing the problem in a way that they did not see six months or a year ago. year.

Still, a key question for political activists and pundits on either side of the divide is whether the political backlash to the court’s ruling will extend into the midterm elections.

Four states — Kentucky, California, Michigan and Vermont — will vote on abortion-related ballot measures. In many other states, the issue will play out in the background of key races, as voters decide how to weigh the candidates’ positions on abortion against their positions on other issues.

Some abortion rights advocates say the Kansas result shows that Democrats, even in conservative states, shouldn’t shy away from addressing abortion, but should make it a central platform in their campaigns. .

“If they lead on that, they have the opportunity to engage voters across the aisle and have a surge of enthusiasm in their own base that, frankly, you don’t see in a midterm election,” said Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro. -Choose America. Local group members and organizers knocked on more than 1,200 doors, made more than 30,000 phone calls and sent 5,000 text messages in Kansas.

Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who leads focus groups with voters across the country, says it’s unclear what priority voters will place on abortion, with so many other issues on their minds.

“If you ask an open-ended question about what will matter to you before the election, people say the economy,” she said. “But when you ask people specifically about abortion, what we’ve seen is that they get very animated. Even people who describe themselves as pro-life say a total ban on abortion is too far.

She said it was now up to Democrats to use the issue as an opportunity to energize a party that was widely expected to lose control of Congress in the November vote.

“It’s not enough to have a problem,” she said. “You have to pursue a case.”

Abortion opponents are also looking to Kansas as they debate whether to push a hardline anti-abortion platform or develop a more tempered stance.

“Voters faced with what they see as a choice between two flawed abortion policy options — one too restrictive, the other too permissive — will opt for the one that is too permissive,” Ed Whelan said. , Fellow of the Washington Center for Ethics and Public Policy. “Pro-lifers need to meet voters where they are.”

Nance of Concerned Women for America said that despite the setback in Kansas, the drive to ban abortion remains an important cause for Republicans, and noted that abortion rights groups, although reinvigorated, have a lot of catching up to do.

“The other side is going to have to finally do what we’ve had to do for the last 50 years – put in place a ground game, put [communication plans] together raise funds, walk past constituencies and work for what they want,” she said. “We’ve been doing this all along.”

To critics who say the anti-abortion movement has pushed too far after the Supreme Court ruling, Nance said that remains to be determined in the next election. Instead of reassessing the legislative strategy, she emphasized a more grassroots organization.

“We’re going to have to fight for that, especially in some of the more purple states,” she said. “I’m so happy to go and plead the case.”

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