How abortion rights were won in conservative Kansas

For abortion rights activists, the overwhelming rejection of Kansas voters Tuesday of an election measure that would have allowed Republican lawmakers to limit or ban the process 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 constitutional abortion rights in June — is providing lessons for upholding abortion rights across the country.

“There is a way to fight back,” said Emily Wales, president and chief executive officer of Planned Parenthood Great Plains. “We want to say to the people who live in states that have lost rights, who feel defeated, that Kansas is showing it can be done. And it doesn’t have to be in a completely advanced state.”

The voting measure would have removed abortion rights from the state constitution, but 59% of voters rejected it — a result that suggests Republicans are facing a major political backlash ahead of November’s midterm elections to win Roe vs. to undo Wade.

Anti-abortion activists say the Kansas result suggests their supporters have grown complacent since the Supreme Court ruling.

Penny Nance, president of the anti-abortion group Concerned Women for America, says her opponents now seem more forceful.

“We’re still going to have to do the hard work,” she said.

Meanwhile, ardent abortion rights activists issued their own stark warnings that Democrats should not take this newfound commitment for granted.

“Did that decision upset people and called for people to come out and do something? Yes,” said Cristina Uribe, director of advocacy and policy strategy at the Gender Equality Action Fund. “Will that be translated [into] vote for a Democratic candidate? I do not know.”

In Kansas, where registered Republicans and independent voters vastly outnumber Democrats, abortion rights activists have been working overtime in recent months to build a broad coalition, using the language of personal liberty and individual rights.

“We found common ground between different voting blocs and mobilized people from across the political spectrum to vote no,” Rachel Sweet, campaign manager for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, told reporters Wednesday.

“Kansans 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 like Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union, but also the League of Women Voters of Kansas, the Mainstream Coalition, and other groups targeting moderate conservatives and independents. It also recruited Catholics to vote and more than 70 religious leaders in the state.

In an ad, Kansans for Constitutional Freedom framed the measure as a “tough government mandate aimed at interfering with private medical decisions,” and showed images linking abortion restrictions to vaccination and mask mandates.

“We need to be able to have conversations with people who don’t agree with us, or maybe don’t agree with us on every point, but who share a common goal of protecting people’s personal autonomy, their constitutional rights, those decisions for meet yourself,” said Ashley All, the group’s communications director.

The measure appeared on the ballot alongside primary races for congressional seats. Proponents and opponents knocked on tens of thousands of doors and spent millions of dollars on advertising, and the turnout of nearly half the state’s registered voters was unprecedented for a Kansas primary.

Abortion rights won overwhelmingly in the Kansas City suburbs, but also secured more than expected support in the more rural, conservative areas of the state.

At least half of the Kansans who cast their ballots Tuesday had never voted in a primary before. Those who voted early were overwhelmingly women and more likely to be Democrats, said Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democrat firm that specializes in political data.

“It’s clear that women have become much more involved in this election, and that has resulted in a much higher turnout,” he said.

After the Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. Wade on June 24, Kansas saw a big change in voting registration, with a big surge of women and Democrats entering the electoral rolls, Bonier said.

The result reflects what polls have long shown: a majority of Americans support abortion rights. In a Pew poll released 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 result contradicts a recent trend in republican states. Over the past eight years, voters in Louisiana, Alabama, West Virginia and Tennessee have approved amendments that state their states don’t 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’s also garnered a string of coverage of complicated cases, including that of women whose doctors refused to perform abortions even when their fetuses died or their pregnancy was not viable — and the saga of a 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio who had to left the state to have an abortion.

“It’s important to see that the tide may have turned,” Nash said. “Essentially, the rubber hit the streets. It’s a reality now that there is no federal protection for abortion rights, and people are seeing the issue in a way they didn’t see 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 backlash to the court 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 emerge in the background of key election campaigns as voters decide how to balance candidates’ stance on abortion against their positions on other issues.

Some abortion advocates say the Kansas result shows that Democrats, even in conservative states, should not shy away from the issue of abortion but should make it a central platform of their campaigns.

“If they lead in that, they have an opportunity to win voters across the aisle and to feel an enthusiasm in their own base that, frankly, you don’t see in a midterm election,” said Mini Timmaraju, president of NARAL Pro -Choice America. The group’s grassroots members and organizers knocked on more than 1,200 doors, made over 30,000 phone calls and sent 5,000 text messages in Kansas.

Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who conducts focus groups with voters across the country, says it’s unclear how much priority voters would give abortion amid so many other issues.

“If you ask an open-ended question about what’s important to you in the election, people say economics,” she said. “But if you ask people specifically about abortion, we see that they get very animated. Even people who describe themselves as pro-life say that a total abortion ban is going too far.”

She said Democrats now have a duty to use the issue as an opportunity to energize a party that was widely expected to lose control of Congress in November’s vote.

“It’s not enough to just have a problem,” she said. “You have a case to pursue.”

Anti-abortion opponents are also looking to Kansas when considering whether to push a hardline anti-abortion platform or develop a more dovish stance.

“Voters who feel they have to choose between two imperfect abortion policy options — one too restrictive, one too permissive — will choose the one that is too permissive,” 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 backlash in Kansas, the push to ban abortion is a strong Republican concern, noting that while abortion rights groups are strengthened, they have a lot of catching up to do.

“The other side needs to finally do what we’ve had to do for the last 50 years – put together a ground game, sum it up [communication plans] gather together, raise money, go to the constituencies and work for what they want,” she said. “We’ve been doing this all the time.”

Addressing critics who say the anti-abortion movement has gone too far after the Supreme Court decision, Nance said that has yet to be decided in the upcoming election. Instead of reassessing legislative strategy, she emphasized more organizing on the ground.

“We’re going to have to fight for that, especially in some of the more purple states,” she said. “I’m so happy to represent the case.” How abortion rights were won in conservative Kansas

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