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Kansas vote on abortion heard nationwide ahead of midterms


Kansas’ strong vote in favor of abortion rights – coming in a state long dominated by Republicans – has Democrats and abortion rights supporters ready to go on the offensive in the November election, encouraged by an unexpectedly commanding victory.

Democrats immediately saw in the Kansas vote a possible path to fending off what is widely anticipated to be a favorable midterm election for Republicans, who believe President Joe Biden’s poor approval ratings and high inflation have given them a powerful message against liberals.

“The people of Kansas sent an unmistakable message to MAGA Republican extremists: back off women’s fundamental rights,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, said on the Senate floor Wednesday.

Voters rejected an amendment that would have stripped abortion rights from the state constitution in a 59% to 41% vote, according to unofficial results from the Kansas Secretary of State’s Office.

Schumer said the vote in “red Kansas last night is a reflection of what’s happening across the country and what will continue to occur through the November elections.”

The Kansas amendment was the first vote in the nation on abortion rights since the Supreme Court decision in June and was closely watched as a bellwether of voter attitudes ahead of the November election.

Republicans are widely expected to make gains in Congress in November, and may also make inroads in state legislatures, too. But the Kansas result may mean that in some instances the threat to abortion access is potent enough to blunt GOP advances.

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre kicked off her daily briefing Wednesday by touting the Kansas result and tying it to an executive order on abortion rights President Joe Biden was set to sign later that day. The order is expected to help women travel across state lines for abortion.

“We have seen a lot of momentum in the last 24 hours in our fight to restore Roe. Americans in Kansas turned out to challenge views that would move the country backwards,” she said.

“And they won,” she said, noting that Biden had predicted a backlash at the ballot to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision, called Dobbs, to overturn the federal right to an abortion.

Will other states follow Kansas?

Bob Beatty, a political scientist at Washburn University in Topeka, said the outcome has the potential to “seriously shake up what might have been a Republican romp in November.”

He stressed that abortion’s potential to aid Democrats at this point remains just that – potential – because the opposition to the amendment emphasized the importance of preserving a constitutional right, a message that defied easy partisan characterization.

Still, the amendment’s defeat suggests other ballot measures that ban or restrict abortion – or would give state legislators the power to do so – will face an uphill climb.

Voters in Vermont and California will vote in November on adding protections for abortion rights to their state constitutions. A similar amendment may also qualify for the November ballot in Michigan.

Some Republicans warned against drawing sweeping conclusions from the Kansas vote.

“I would caution trying to be able to evaluate this is where the nation is, based on that particular state and based on how it was raised,” Sen. James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican, said. “This actually was going onto the ballot before the Dobbs decision even came out…so this is a very early indicator.”

But Biden said the outcome made clear that “the majority of Americans agree that women should have access to abortion and should have the right to make their own health care decisions.”

The president called on Congress protect abortion access in federal law. The Democratic-controlled House has approved abortion legislation, but it’s stalled in the evenly-divided Senate.

In the wake of the Kansas vote, some abortion opponents said their victory in June at the U.S. Supreme Court means they must redouble their efforts. Fights over abortion that in the past played out in court are shifting to the ballot box.

Sen. Roger Marshall, a Kansas Republican who staunchly opposes abortion, said he didn’t have an explanation for why the amendment failed.

“Too many times I’ve seen sadness and hurt, without an explanation why — this is one of those moments,” Marshall said in a statement. “While I don’t have an answer, I do know that God works all things for good for those who trust him.”

Mallory Carroll, a spokeswoman for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, which spent $1.4 million supporting the amendment, said the movement “must work exponentially harder to achieve and maintain protections for unborn children and their mothers.”

“The stakes for the pro-life movement in the upcoming midterm elections could not be higher, and there will be many more factors in play. It is critical that pro-life candidates go on offense to expose the extremism of Democrats’ policy goals for nationalized abortion on demand paid for by taxpayers,” Carroll said.

Most Americans support abortion in at least some circumstances. Only 13% say it should be illegal in all circumstances, while 35% say it should be legal under any circumstances, according to a Gallup poll from May, before the release of the U.S. Supreme Court opinion. Half of Americans hold a mixed view, saying it should be legal in some cases.

For decades, the Republican-controlled Kansas Legislature passed more and more abortion restrictions while appearing to pay little political price. Some, such as informed consent measures, were upheld by courts while others were blocked, including a ban on dilation and evacuation abortions, a common method of second-trimester abortion.

In the lead up to the election many Kansas Republican officials and candidates vocally supported the amendment and urged their supporters to vote yes. EMILY’s List, a national group that works to elect Democratic women, said the amendment’s defeat proves voters will hold Republican accountable for opposing abortion rights.

“Voters will not stand by while Republicans play politics with our bodies and our futures,” EMILY’s List president Laphonza Butler said.

Abortion rights supporters and opponents are certain to closely study Kansas for lessons to apply to future contests.

“The people of Kansas spoke and now the rest of the country has to listen,” said Rachel Sweet, campaign manager for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, the main group opposing the amendment.

Kansas had circumstances that contributed to the amendment defeat. Republicans tried to create near-ideal conditions for its passage by holding the election in conjunction with the August primary, which typically draws fewer voters than general elections – a bet that Republican turnout would simply overwhelm Democrats and independents.

That decision backfired, with turnout exceeding at least 47% of registered voters. The election came just weeks after the Dobbs decision, with voters showing intense interest.

The Legislature also approved the amendment in 2021 before it was clear the U.S. Supreme Court would overturn Roe v. Wade. Value Them Both – the main coalition supporting the amendment – told voters the measure would allow legislators to regulate abortion and didn’t ban the procedure.

Value Them Both stuck to that message even after the Dobbs decision made clear the true stakes of the vote would be whether to give the Legislature the power to ban abortion. The group said in a statement on Tuesday night that “the mainstream media propelled the left’s false narrative, contributing to the confusion that misled Kansans about the amendment.”

Kansans for Constitutional Freedom emphasized that they kept their campaign non-partisan, helping to win over independents and Republicans who may have mixed feelings on abortion. Some of their messages urged a no vote as a way to prevent government mandates – alluding to the anger many residents felt at early pandemic restrictions.

“I do think there are things that can be taken from what happened here and used in other states,” said Ashley All, a spokeswoman for the group. “I think the coalition building was critical. I think we need to be able to have conversations with people who have complicated opinions and views on this issue.”

McClatchyDC’s David Lightman and Alex Roarty contributed reporting

This story was originally published August 3, 2022 1:19 PM.

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Jonathan Shorman is The Kansas City Star’s lead political reporter, covering Kansas and Missouri politics and government. He previously covered the Kansas Statehouse for The Star and Wichita Eagle. He holds a journalism degree from The University of Kansas.

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