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Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Kansas Abortion Rights Victory Great News for Women — and For Democrats

Yes, it was one of the biggest developments of the midterm primary season, and I wrote about it at New York:

In the first election test on abortion since the U.S. Supreme Court abolished the right to choose at the federal level, voters in deep-red Kansas soundly rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have paved the way for a ban on abortion. The so-called “Value Them Both” amendment, backed heavily by Republican politicians and the Catholic Church, lost by 18 points with unusually heavy turnout for a midterm primary. That this happened in a state that Donald Trump carried by a 56-42 margin in 2020, and in a year when election dynamics have strongly favored Republicans, represents a big victory for the pro-choice cause and a hopeful sign for Democrats in November.

Voters in three conservative states (Tennessee in 2014, West Virginia in 2018, and Louisiana in 2020) have passed “no right to abortion” constitutional amendments, but that was at a time when Roe v. Wade was still in place and abortion rights were protected by the federal courts. That changed with the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, but anti-abortion advocates in Kansas faced an additional hurdle: In 2019, the Kansas Supreme Court had established a right to abortion based on a state constitutional provision protecting bodily autonomy. Republican legislators attached the ballot measure ratifying the “Value Them Both” amendment to the primary instead of the general election in the hope that a small and Republican-skewing electorate on August 2 would make victory a near-certainty. But instead the gambit aroused the pro-choice majority.

The first clear sign that the Kansas anti-abortion measure might fail came in the form of very heavy early in-person and by-mail voting:

Strong turnout continued on primary day. Suburban Johnson County, the state’s largest, is expected to hit 65 percent turnout when it’s all said and done — more than double the usual midterm vote. And there’s not much doubt about which side was driving the high turnout. Johnson County gave 53 percent of its 2020 vote to Joe Biden. But “no” on the abortion amendment took 68 percent. Perhaps even more impressively, the state’s second largest county, Sedgewick, which was carried by Trump by 11 points in 2020, gave “no” 59 percent of its vote with most precincts reporting. What was expected to be a very close vote with better-than-average midterm turnout became a real blowout:

The implications of the Kansas vote are twofold. It shows that if given a direct role in determining abortion policy, voters even in states as conservative as Kansas will defend abortion rights. It calls into doubt the expected anti-abortion victory in November in Kentucky, which will vote on a very similar constitutional amendment; and in Montana, where Republicans are trying to do the same. Indeed, the results may encourage abortion-rights advocates to seek state voter-approved pro-choice state constitutional amendments; they are already in the works in Vermont and California and could happen as early as November in Michigan. And this trend could also create incentives for judges to interpret state constitutions favorably to abortion rights, just like those in Kansas did, with the assurance that voters have their backs.

Beyond the immediate issue, though, both the outcome and the enthusiasm exhibited by those who turned out to vote “no” to abortion bans in Kansas suggest that if Democrats make this a signature issue for the 2022 midterms, their currently bleak prospects in November — much of it based on the assumption that discouraged Democrats won’t vote — could turn around quickly. It’s clear the anti-abortion movement and its wholly owned subsidiary, the Republican Party, may have miscalculated with an assault on a right deemed basic by a majority of Americans, who may sooner than expected wake up and fight back.

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