Donald Trump won Kansas by a 15-point margin in 2020, sweeping 100 of the state’s 105 counties as the presidential candidate of a Republican Party that has for decades pledged to overturn the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision that protected abortion rights. So a lot of folks just presumed, prior to Tuesday’s Kansas vote on whether to remove protections for abortion access from their state Constitution, that the anti-choice position would prevail.
But the first statewide vote on abortion rights since the conservative supermajority on the Supreme Court overturned Roe didn’t go as the right had planned. Kansans voted 59-41 to maintain legal barriers to Republican efforts to ban abortions. Hailing a “huge and decisive victory,” Rachel Sweet, the campaign manager for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, which successfully promoted a “no” vote in Tuesday’s election, announced, “The people of Kansas have spoken. They think that abortion should be safe, legal and accessible in the state of Kansas.”
Pundits who are now treating the Kansas vote as “a stunning upset” and “a surprising victory” had assumed that conservative voters would support what was widely understood as an effort to clear the way for an abortion ban. But while the pro-choice margin was striking, the win for abortion rights was not exactly a shocker. In fact, it followed a pattern that’s been noted for decades by savvy observers of voting trends.
When reproductive rights issues are on the ballot, even in Republican-leaning states, well-organized and unapologetic pro-choice campaigns have established a winning record. That’s what happened in South Dakota in 2006, when voters rejected a sweeping abortion ban by a 55-45 vote, and where they did the same thing two years later—in a presidential election year—by roughly the same margin. That’s what happened in Mississippi in 2011, when voters opposed a so-called “personhood” amendment to the state Constitution, which sought to eliminate reproductive rights, by a 58-42 vote. That’s what happened in Florida in 2012, when, by a 55-45 margin, voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have prohibited the state from spending public funds for abortions or health insurance that covers abortions. That’s what happened in North Dakota in 2014, when voters rejected a so-called “right-to-life amendment” by an overwhelming 64-36 margin.
There have been some setbacks over the years, often by narrow margins, in states such as West Virginia, where a 2018 amendment that said “nothing in this Constitution secures or protects a right to abortion or requires the funding of abortion,” won by a 51.73 to 48.27 vote. But, by and large, when anti-choice proposals are on the ballot, voters tend to protect abortion rights. And that’s reasonably likely to be case in states across the country now that the Supreme Court has delivered its ruling on Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.
The Kansas victory on Tuesday resulted from grassroots boots-on-the-ground organizing and honest engagement on the issue. Television ads urged Kansas voters to reject a “strict government mandate” that “puts a mother’s life at risk” and that could “ban any abortion with no exceptions.” But this wasn’t just a media campaign. Pro-choice activists mounted an energetic grassroots organizing drive that reached out to a wide range of communities, including those in historically Republican rural counties—a number of which voted “no” on Tuesday. In some western Kansas counties, support for the pro-choice position on the ballot question ran more than 25 points better than the 2020 vote for Joe Biden.
As the 2022 election season unfolds, activists in other states can learn a good deal from the Kansas activists who spoke bluntly about how banning abortion will take away fundamental rights, criminalize health choices, and prevent doctors and nurses from providing necessary care.
Framed in those terms, the fight to preserve abortion rights takes on a dynamic character as an electoral project. Hillary Clinton said Wednesday, “Abortion rights are crucial. Abortion rights are popular. Abortion rights are a winning issue.” It is, indeed, likely, to be a winning issue in other states—Kentucky , California, Vermont, and Michigan—that hold referendums on reproductive rights this fall. It could also be a winning issue in contests between pro-choice and anti-choice candidates for governorships, attorneys general positions, and control of legislative chambers and the Congress.
This is something Republicans have understood for some time.
When Trump debated Joe Biden in the fall of 2020, the Republican president bristled at the Democrat’s suggestion that the election should be considered a referendum on reproductive rights.
Barely 10 minutes into the first televised clash between the two candidates, Biden stated, “The point is that the President also is opposed to Roe v. Wade. That’s on the ballot as well and the court…that’s also at stake right now.” Before Biden could finish, Trump interrupted him. “You don’t know what’s on the ballot. Why is it on the ballot?” asked the 45th president. “Why is it on the ballot? It’s not on the ballot.”
Why was Trump so fretful? Because he’s a cynical politician who used a promise to pack the Supreme Court with anti-choice judges as a tool to secure the Republican nomination in 2016, and to maintain support among social conservatives even when his own actions were morally reprehensible and should have been seen as politically disqualifying. But Trump did not want to have to face the consequences of his position, or of his actions, after he nominated three high court justices who would, indeed, vote to overturn Roe.
The same goes for a lot of other Republicans. That’s why in Kansas GOP legislators and operatives schemed to put their confusingly worded constitutional amendment on the ballot in an August primary, where turnout was expected to be low and where Republican contests for governor and attorney general were the big draws. Pro-choice organizing that sought and secured a high turnout upended their calculations. When all the votes are counted, the 2022 Kansas primary election turnout will very nearly double the turnout for the comparable primary in 2018.
As Democrats look to November, they would be wise to take their cues from Kansas abortion rights activists. Abortion is not the only issue that brings people to the polls and influences how they vote. But if party activists make the case that abortion is on the ballot in November, if they boost turnout from pro-choice voters, and if Democratic candidates can achieve even a small measure of the swing seen in Kansas, the 2022 political calculus could be dramatically improved for Biden and for his party.