For abortion rights activists, the overwhelming voter rejection in Kansas Tuesday of a ballot measure that would have allowed Republican lawmakers to restrict or ban the procedure is not just an unexpected victory in this conservative state.
It’s a roadmap for future battles.
The activists say their campaign — the first major public test of abortion rights since the US Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion in June — offers lessons for upholding abortion rights across the country.
“There is a path to fight back,” said Emily Wales, the president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Great Plains. “We want to tell people who live in states that have lost their rights, who feel defeated, that Kansas is showing it can be done. And it doesn’t have to be in a fully progressive state.”
The ballot measure would have removed the right to abortion from the state constitution, but 59% of voters rejected it — a result suggesting Republicans face major political backlash for the reversal of Roe vs. Wade ahead of the midterm elections in November.
Anti-abortion activists say the Kansas outcome suggests their supporters have become complacent since the Supreme Court ruling.
Penny Nance, president of the anti-abortion group Concerned Women for America, says their opponents look more energetic now.
“We will still have to do the hard work,” she said.
Meanwhile, elated abortion rights activists offered their own stark warnings that Democrats should not take this renewed engagement for granted.
“Has this decision angered and prompted people to want to do something? Yes,” said Cristina Uribe, director of advocacy and political strategy at the Gender Equality Action Fund. “Will that translate? [into] vote for a Democratic candidate? I don’t know.”
In Kansas, where the number of registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters far outnumbers Democrats, abortion rights activists have been working overtime in recent months to build a broad coalition, using the language of personal freedom and individual rights.
“We found consensus among different voting blocs and mobilized people across the political spectrum to vote no,” Rachel Sweet, Kansans’ campaign manager for Constitutional Freedom, told reporters on Wednesday.
“Chances across the political spectrum 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 about abortion.”
The campaign against the measure 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 targeted moderate conservatives and independents. It also called for Catholics for Choice and more than 70 religious leaders in the state.
In one ad, Kansans for Constitutional Freedom framed the measure as a “strict government mandate designed to disrupt private medical decisions” and showed images linking abortion restrictions to vaccine and mask mandates.
“We need to be able to have conversations with people who disagree with us, or may not agree with us on every point, but share the common goal of protecting people’s personal autonomy, their constitutional rights to make these decisions for themselves. take,” 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 registered voters in the state was unprecedented for a Kansas primary.
Abortion rights won overwhelmingly in the suburbs of Kansas City, but also received more support than expected in the more rural, conservative areas of the state.
At least half of the Kansans who voted Tuesday had never voted in a primary before. Those who voted early were predominantly women and more likely to be Democrats, said Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic company specializing in political data.
“Obviously, women were just much more involved in these elections, and that resulted in a much higher turnout,” he said.
After the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade on June 24, Kansas saw a big change in who registered to vote, with a large stream of women and Democrats added to the electoral rolls, Bonier said.
The result reflected what polls have long shown: A majority of Americans support the right to abortion. In a Pew poll published last month, 61% said abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and more than half of respondents said they disapproved of the Supreme Court’s decision.
The outcome goes against a recent trend in Republican states. In the past eight years, voters in Louisiana, Alabama, West Virginia and Tennessee have passed amendments stipulating that their states do not protect abortion rights, said Elizabeth Nash, a state policy analyst for the Washington-based Guttmacher Institute.
The Supreme Court ruling has already resulted in the loss of abortion rights in Southern and Midwestern states. It has also sparked a flood of coverage of complicated cases, including those of women whose doctors refused to perform abortions even if their fetuses died or their pregnancy was not viable — and the saga of a 10-year-old victim of rape 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 abortion rights, and people are seeing the issue in a way that they would not have seen six months or a year ago.”
Still, a key question for political activists and pundits on both sides of the divide is whether the political impact on the judicial decision 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 rise in the background of major races as voters decide how the candidates’ positions on abortion are balanced against their positions on other issues.
Some abortion rights advocates say the result in Kansas shows that Democrats, even in conservative states, should not shy away from the issue of abortion, but make it a central platform of their campaigns.
“If they take the lead, they have the opportunity to engage voters on the other side of the aisle and get a wave of enthusiasm in their own grassroots that you honestly don’t see in midterm elections,” said Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro -Choice America. The group’s grassroots 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 how much priority voters will give to abortion, with so many other issues on their minds.
“If you ask an open-ended question about what matters to you going into the election, people say the economy,” she said. “But if you ask people specifically about abortion, we see that they get very animated. Even those who describe themselves as pro-life say a total ban on abortion is going too far.”
She said it is now up to Democrats to use the issue as an opportunity to revive a party widely expected to lose control of Congress on the November vote.
“It’s not enough just to have a problem,” she said. “You have to prosecute a case.”
Abortion opponents are also looking to Kansas when considering whether to push a hard-line anti-abortion platform or develop a more tempered stance.
“Voters faced with what they see as a choice between two imperfect abortion policy options—one too restrictive, one too permissive—will choose the too permissive option,” said Ed Whelan, a fellow at the Ethics and Public. Policy Center in Washington. “Pro-lifers need to meet voters where they are.”
Nance, of Concerned Women for America, said that despite the setback in Kansas, the push to ban abortion remains a strong reason for Republicans, noting that abortion rights groups, while encouraged, have a lot of catching up to do.
“The other side will finally have to do what we’ve had to do for the past 50 years – put together a ground game, [communication plans] together, raise money, run for constituencies and work for what they want,” she said. “We’ve been doing this all the time.”
To critics who say the anti-abortion movement has gone too far after the Supreme Court decision, Nance said it has yet to be determined in the upcoming election. Instead of re-evaluating the legislative strategy, she emphasized more organizing on the ground.
“We’re going to have to fight for it, especially in some of the more purple states,” she said. “I’m so happy to start making the case.”
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.