TOPEKA, Kan. (AP) — Kansas voters on Tuesday sent a resounding message about their desire to protect abortion rights, rejecting a ballot measure in a conservative state with deep ties to the anti-abortion movement that would have allowed the Republican-controlled Legislature to tighten restrictions or ban the procedure outright.
It was the first test of voter sentiment after the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in June that overturned the constitutional right to abortion, providing an unexpected result with potential implications for the coming midterm elections.
While it was just one state, the heavy turnout for an August primary that typically favors Republicans was a major victory for abortion rights advocates. With most of the vote counted, they were prevailing by roughly 20 percentage points, with the turnout approaching what’s typical for a fall election for governor.
The vote also provided a dash of hope for Democrats nationwide grasping for a game-changer during an election year otherwise filled with dark omens for their prospects in November.
“This vote makes clear what we know: the majority of Americans agree that women should have access to abortion and should have the right to make their own health care decisions,” President Joe Biden said in a statement.
After calling on Congress to “restore the protections of Roe” in federal law, Biden added, “And, the American people must continue to use their voices to protect the right to women’s health care, including abortion.”
The Kansas vote also provided a warning to Republicans who had celebrated the Supreme Court ruling and were moving swiftly with abortion bans or near-bans in nearly half the states.
“Kansans bluntly rejected anti-abortion politicians’ attempts at creating a reproductive police state,” said Kimberly Inez McGuire, executive director of Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity. ”Today’s vote was a powerful rebuke and a promise of the mounting resistance.”
The proposed amendment to the Kansas Constitution would have added language stating that it does not grant the right to abortion. A 2019 state Supreme Court decision declared that access to abortion is a “fundamental” right under the state’s Bill of Rights, preventing a ban and potentially thwarting legislative efforts to enact new restrictions.
The referendum was closely watched as a barometer of liberal and moderate voters’ anger over the Supreme Court’s ruling scrapping the nationwide right to abortion. In Kansas, abortion opponents wouldn’t say what legislation they’d pursue if the amendment were passed and bristled when opponents predicted it would lead to a ban.
Mallory Carroll, a spokesperson for the national anti-abortion group Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, described the vote as “a huge disappointment” for the movement and called on anti-abortion candidates to “go on the offensive.”
She added that after the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, “We must work exponentially harder to achieve and maintain protections for unborn children and their mothers.”
The measure’s failure also was significant because of Kansas’ connections to anti-abortion activists. Anti-abortion “Summer of Mercy” protests in 1991 inspired abortion opponents to take over the Kansas Republican Party and make the Legislature more conservative. They were there because Dr. George Tiller’s clinic was among the few in the U.S. known to do abortions late in pregnancy, and he was murdered in 2009 by an anti-abortion extremist.
Anti-abortion lawmakers wanted to have the vote coincide with the state’s August primary, arguing they wanted to make sure it got the focus, though others saw it as an obvious attempt to boost their chances of winning. Twice as many Republicans as Democrats have voted in the state’s August primaries in the decade leading up to Tuesday’s election.
“This outcome is a temporary setback, and our dedicated fight to value women and babies is far from over,” the coalition leading the vote yes campaign said.
The electorate in Tuesday’s vote wasn’t typical for a Kansas primary, particularly because tens of thousands of unaffiliated voters cast ballots.
Kristy Winter, 52, a Kansas City-area teacher and unaffiliated voter, voted against the measure and brought her 16-year-old daughter with her to her polling place.
“I want her to have the same right to do what she feels is necessary, mostly in the case of rape or incest,” she said. “I want her to have the same rights my mother has had most of her life.”
Opponents of the measure predicted that the anti-abortion groups and lawmakers behind the measure would push quickly for an abortion ban if voters approved it. Before the vote, the measure’s supporters refused to say whether they would pursue a ban as they appealed to voters who supported both some restrictions and some access to abortion.
Stephanie Kostreva, a 40-year-old school nurse from the Kansas City area and a Democrat, said she voted in favor of the measure because she is a Christian and believes life begins at conception.
“I’m not full scale that there should never be an abortion,” she said. “I know there are medical emergencies, and when the mother’s life is in danger there is no reason for two people to die.”
An anonymous group sent a misleading text Monday to Kansas voters telling them to “vote yes” to protect choice, but it was suspended late Monday from the Twilio messaging platform it was using, a spokesperson said. Twilio did not identify the sender.
The 2019 Kansas Supreme Court decision protecting abortion rights blocked a law that banned the most common second-trimester procedure, and another law imposing special health regulations on abortion providers also is on hold. Abortion opponents argued that all of the state’s existing restrictions were in danger, though some legal scholars found that argument dubious. Kansas doesn’t ban most abortions until the 22nd week of pregnancy.
The Kansas vote is the start of what could be a long-running series of legal battles playing out where lawmakers are more conservative on abortion than governors or state courts. Kentucky will vote in November on whether to add language similar to Kansas’ proposed amendment to its state constitution.
Meanwhile, Vermont will decide in November whether to add an abortion rights provision to its constitution. A similar question is likely headed to the November ballot in Michigan.
In Kansas, both sides together spent more than $14 million on their campaigns. Abortion providers and abortion rights groups were key donors to the “no” side, while Catholic dioceses heavily funded the “yes” campaign.
The state has had strong anti-abortion majorities in its Legislature for 30 years, but voters have regularly elected Democratic governors, including Laura Kelly in 2018. She opposed the proposed amendment, saying changing the state constitution would “throw the state back into the Dark Ages.”
State Attorney General Derek Schmidt, a Republican hoping to unseat Kelly, supported the proposed constitutional amendment. He told the Catholic television network EWTN before the election that “there’s still room for progress” in decreasing abortions, without spelling out what he would sign as governor.
Although abortion opponents pushed almost annually for new restrictions until the 2019 state Supreme Court ruling, they felt constrained by past court rulings and Democratic governors like Kelly.
This story has been updated to correct the attribution for the quote that begins, “This outcome is a temporary setback.” It came from a statement issued by the coalition that led the “vote yes” campaign, not Emily Massey.
Stafford reported from Overland Park and Olathe.
Abortion vote in Kansas sparks new hope for Dems in midterms
NEW YORK (AP) — Democrats displayed a newfound sense of optimism about the election-year political climate Wednesday after voters in traditionally conservative Kansas overwhelmingly backed a measureprotecting abortion rights.
At the White House, President Joe Biden hailed the vote in Kansas as the direct result of outrage at the Supreme Court’s decision in June to repeal a woman’s constitutional right to obtain an abortion.
Republicans and the high court “don’t have a clue about the power of American women,” Biden said. “Last night in Kansas, they found out.”
On Capitol Hill, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., boasted of the political winds “blowing at Democrats.”
“Last night in the American heartland, the people of Kansas sent an unmistakable message to the Republican extremists,” he said. “If it’s going to happen in Kansas, it’s going to happen in a whole lot of states.”
With three months until the November election, the optimism may be premature. But it represents a much-needed break for a party that has spent the better part of the past year reeling from crisis to crisis, including the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan and rising prices for gasolineand other goods. Those developments have contributed to Biden’s low approval ratings, leaving Democrats without a unifying leader in a position to rally voters before the election, with control of Congress at stake.
The Kansas vote, however, suggests that threats to abortion rights may energize Democrats in a way few political leaders can. And it comes at a moment when the party is gaining momentum on other fronts, including a legislative package to reduce prescription drug prices, combat climate change and raise taxes on corporations.
The challenge for Democrats will be to maintain the energy for several more months and defy trends that typically trip up the party in power.
In recent history, the party controlling the White House almost always suffers deep losses in the first midterm election of a new presidency. Also, an overwhelming majority of voters believe the country is headed in the wrong direction amid inflation and other economic concerns.
Even with abortion-related momentum, many Democratic strategists privately expect to lose the House majority and believe the Senate is essentially a coin flip.
The day after the Kansas vote, Democratic strategists on the front lines of key midterm contests described a complicated political reality on abortion.
Abortion rights supporters surged to the polls in Kansas, where abortion was quite literally on the ballot. By a roughly 20-percentage point margin, they rejected a measure that would have changed the state constitution to allow state lawmakers to impose restrictions on abortion — or even a ban. The early August primary turnout was on par with a governor’s general election contest.
But few elections this fall will feature such clear stakes for abortion rights. Just four states — California, Michigan, Vermont and Kentucky — are expected to feature a Kansas-style abortion referendum on the November ballot, according to the pro-Democratic group EMILY’s List.
In the majority of states, Democrats must convince voters they can protect abortion access only by defeating anti-abortion Republican candidates at the state and federal level. While that is true in most cases, it’s much more complicated to run against a candidate than a single-issue ballot measure, according to Democratic pollster Molly Murphy.
“The optimist would say, when voters know that abortion is on the ballot, they are motivated to turn out,” Murphy said. “That’s the messaging challenge that we are going to face. Will voters believe that a legal right to abortion is at stake here in this country in their vote for Congress, Senate, governor, state house — all of those things — and be as motivated to show up to vote?”
“Republicans are going to do everything they can to deflect and not engage on this,” she added, noting the GOP’s heavy focus on inflation, gas prices and immigration.
Indeed, as Democrats celebrated on Wednesday, the Republican reaction to the abortion vote was decidedly muted.
The Kansas vote was “a huge disappointment for pro-life Kansans and Americans nationwide,” said Mallory Carroll, of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America.
Republican strategist Christine Matthews warned that the Kansas vote could have “an energizing effect for abortion rights supporters.”
“Success breeds success,” she said. “It will encourage the belief that turning out and activating can make a difference and that is particularly important with younger voters and those less inclined to participate. It’s a momentum-shifter.”
Democrats have long tried without much success to energize supporters by focusing on abortion. But the Supreme Court’s decision clarified the stakes as never before. Absent a new federal law, abortion rights now fall to the states, and in 12 states led by Republicans, abortion has already been banned or heavily restricted. Many more are expected to follow.
Republican strategists acknowledge that swing state candidates will have to tread carefully on the issue.
In Georgia, GOP Senate nominee Herschel Walker, for example, worried some Washington Republicans by quickly declaring his opposition to abortion rights even in cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother. Such a position, thought to be extreme in past years, is somewhat common among Republican candidates in 2022.
Republicans in other states have largely sought to avoid clarifying their position.
The Senate Democrats campaign arm recently established a website, GOPOnAbortion.com, to highlight Republican candidates’ outspoken opposition to abortion rights. While Democratic candidates from New York to Washington state are already running ads on abortion, the issue is expected to play a bigger role in some races than others.
Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, who leads the group dedicated to protecting the Senate’s Democratic majority, predicted that abortion would likely matter most as a political issue in Senate races in Nevada, New Hampshire and Arizona — all states in which polling suggests strong support for abortion rights. Suburban women and younger voters are most likely to be motivated by the issue.
“There’s a great deal of anger,” Peters said of the backlash against the Roe reversal. “There’s an energy I haven’t seen before.”
The Kansas vote suggests that such energy could extend well beyond a handful of states.
Polling shows that relatively few Americans wanted to see Roe overturned.
More Americans disapprove than approve of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, 53% to 30%, according to an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll from July conducted about three weeks after the ruling. Just over half of those surveyed said they felt angry or sad about the ruling, the poll found.
In Wisconsin, the leading Democratic Senate candidate, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, noted that the day the Supreme Court overturned Roe was the biggest fundraising day of his entire campaign.
“People are motivated and energetic in ways that I’ve never seen before,” he said in an interview. “I can only assume that that intensity will increase all the way to November.”
Associated Press writers Lisa Mascaro and Chris Megerian in Washington and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.
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