By Gabriella Borter and Joseph Ax
(Reuters) – A decisive victory for abortion rights in deeply conservative Kansas has raised hopes for Democrats that they can harness voter anger over efforts to limit or ban the procedure to prevail in competitive races and other US state referendums in November.
Political analysts and organizers had anticipated an uphill battle to defeat a Republican-backed constitutional amendment that would have allowed lawmakers to restrict abortion in Kansas.
Instead, Tuesday’s primary election drew a record turnout. Nearly half of registered voters cast their ballots and nearly 60% rejected the amendment. Abortion rights advocates exceeded expectations across the state, from rural to urban.
A day after the landslide victory, Democrats and abortion-rights campaigns across the country said Kansas showed how to galvanize voters despite concerns about the economy ahead of the Jan. 8 midterm elections. november.
The main coalition opposing Kansas’s proposed amendment attributed the success to winning support from moderate Republicans, independents and abortion-ambivalent voters, 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 from across the political spectrum to vote no,” said Rachel Sweet, campaign manager for Kansas for Constitutional Liberty.
Early results showed the Kansas abortion-rights campaign outperforming Democratic candidates from past elections statewide, a testament to bipartisan support. In 14 counties that opted 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 hasn’t supported a Democratic presidential candidate in more than five decades, nearly two-thirds of the vote favored protecting abortion rights.
The US Supreme Court’s decision in June to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that legalized abortion nationwide, boosted 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 say boosted volunteer and voter turnout.
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 important issue for her and blocked her “no” vote on the amendment.
“I never thought (Roe) would be overturned,” Broockerd said. “Since it’s been, it’s like, now I have to pay attention to that.”
Speaking Wednesday about the Kansas vote, Biden said the Supreme Court “virtually challenged the women of this country to go to the polls and restore the right to choose.”
Removing abortion protections from the Kansas constitution would have allowed the Republican-led state legislature to restrict or ban abortion. Kansas allows abortion up to 22 weeks of pregnancy with various restrictions, and polls show most residents oppose an outright abortion ban.
Republicans believe voter angst over inflation could overshadow the public’s negative reaction to the Roe ruling and propel their party’s candidates to victory.
The Kansas initiative, a limited question on abortion, gave voters the opportunity to express themselves specifically on the issue. Come November, with more issues at stake, pro-choice Republican voters may be unwilling to cross partisan lines and support Democratic candidates, analysts said.
But Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who has led several efforts against Trump, said her research suggests abortion could alienate swing voters from Republicans, especially in states like Pennsylvania and Arizona, where Republicans have nominated state candidates of extreme right.
In focus groups, including with college-educated moderates from suburbia who are likely to be key swing votes in November, Longwell said voters express deep discomfort 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,” he said. “But when you ask specifically about abortion, they say, ‘I’m really 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 liberty to win over voters with complex views on reproductive rights. The ads built on the reluctance of many Kansans to allow the government to intervene in personal health care decisions, encouraging voters to “say no to more government control.”
An abortion rights coalition in Kentucky is using the same message 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 freedom in medical decisions is popular.
“Liberty is a big part of what people think of when they vote for a constitutional amendment,” Ayer said.
(Reporting by Gabriella Borter and Joseph Axe; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Cynthia Osterman)