'We found common ground.' How abortion rights were won in conservative Kansas

Abortion supporters Alie Utley and Joe Moyer (R) react to the failed constitutional amendment proposal at the Kansas Constitutional Freedom Primary Election Watch Party in Overland Park, Kansas on August 2, 2022. - Voters in the traditionally conservative state of Kansas voted Tuesday to maintain the right to abortion, in the first election on the flashpoint issue since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, US media reported. In a significant win for the pro-access side of the US abortion debate, Kansans rejected an amendment that would have scrapped language in the state constitution guaranteeing the right to the procedure and could have paved the way for stricter regulations or a ban. (Photo by DAVE KAUP / AFP) (Photo by DAVE KAUP/AFP via Getty Images)
Abortion rights supporters in Overland Park, Kan., celebrate Tuesday at the news that voters rejected a ballot measure that would have allowed a state ban on the procedure. (Dave Kaup / AFP/Getty Images)

For the record:
10:54 a.m. Aug. 4, 2022: An earlier version of this article misidentified the Gender Equity Action Fund as the Gender Equality Action Fund.

For abortion rights activists, Kansas voters’ overwhelming rejection Tuesday of a ballot measure that would have allowed Republican lawmakers to restrict or outlaw the procedure is not just an unexpected victory in this conservative state.

It is a road map for future battles.

The activists say their campaign — the first major public test of abortion rights since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the constitutional right to abortion in June — provides lessons for upholding abortion rights across the nation.

“There is a path to fighting back,” said Emily Wales, the president and chief executive of Planned Parenthood Great Plains. “We want to say to people living in states that have lost rights, who are feeling defeated, that Kansas shows it can be done. And it doesn’t have to be in a completely progressive state.”

The ballot measure would have removed the right to abortion from the state constitution, but 59% of voters rejected it — a result that suggests Republicans are facing a major political backlash for the undoing of Roe vs. Wade ahead of the midterm elections this November.

Antiabortion activists say the outcome in Kansas suggests that their supporters may have become complacent since the Supreme Court ruling.

Penny Nance, president of the antiabortion group Concerned Women for America, says their opponents now appear more energized.

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

Meanwhile, elated abortion rights activists offered their own pointed warnings that Democrats should not take this newfound engagement for granted.

“Did this decision anger and call people to want to turn out and do something? Yes,” said Cristina Uribe, director of advocacy and political strategy at the Gender Equity Action Fund. “Will that translate [into] voting for a Democratic candidate? I don’t know.”

In Kansas, where registered Republicans and unaffiliated voters vastly outnumber Democrats, abortion rights activists worked overtime in recent months to build a broad coalition, using the language of personal freedom and individual rights.

“We found common ground among diverse voting blocs and mobilized people 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 freedom,” 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 drew in 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 tailored their messaging to moderate conservatives and independents. It also enlisted 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 interfere with private medical decisions,” and showed images that linked abortion restrictions to vaccine and mask mandates.

“We need to be able to have conversations with people who disagree with us, or maybe don’t align 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,” said Ashley All, the group’s director of communications.

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 the state’s registered voters was unprecedented for a Kansas primary.

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

At least half of the Kansans who cast 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 Democratic firm that specializes in political data.

“It’s clear that women were just much more intensely engaged in this election, and that resulted in much higher turnout,” he said.

After the Supreme Court struck down Roe vs. Wade on June 24, Kansas saw a big change in who was registering to vote, with big surges of women and Democrats added to the voter rolls, Bonier said.

The result reflected what polling has long demonstrated: A majority of Americans support the right to abortion. In a Pew survey 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 bucks a recent trend in Republican-leaning states. In the last eight years, voters in Louisiana, Alabama, West Virginia and Tennessee have approved amendments that stipulate 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 led to the loss of abortion rights in states across the South and the Midwest. It has also brought a stream of news coverage of complicated cases, including those of women whose doctors refused to perform abortions even when their fetuses died or their pregnancies were not viable — and the saga of a 10-year-old rape victim in Ohio who had to leave the state to receive an abortion.

“It’s important to see that the tide may have turned,” Nash said. “Essentially, the rubber hit the road. It’s now reality that there is no federal protection for abortion rights, and people are seeing the issue in a way that they hadn’t seen six months or a year ago.”

Still, a key question for political activists and pundits on each side of the divide is whether the political backlash to the court decision will extend to the midterm election.

Four states — Kentucky, California, Michigan and Vermont — will vote on abortion-related ballot measures. In many other states, the issue will loom in the background of key races, as voters decide how to weigh candidates’ stances on abortion against their positions on other matters.

Some abortion rights 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 on it, they have an opportunity to engage voters across the aisle and have a surge of 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 grass-roots members and organizers knocked on more than 1,200 doors, made over 30,000 phone calls, and sent 5,000 texts in Kansas.

Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who conducts focus groups with voters across the country, says it is 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’s going to matter to you going into the election, people say the economy,” she said. “But when you ask people specifically about abortion, what we’ve seen is they get very animated. Even people who describe themselves as pro-life say that a total ban on abortion is too far.”

She said the onus is now on Democrats to use the issue as an opportunity to energize a party that has been widely expected to lose control of Congress in the November vote.

“It’s not enough to just have an issue,” she said. “You have to prosecute a case.”

Abortion opponents are also looking at Kansas as they consider whether to push a hard-line antiabortion platform or develop a more tempered position.

“Voters facing what they see as a choice between two imperfect options on abortion policy — one too restrictive, one too permissive — will go with 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 the voters where they are.”

Nance, of Concerned Women for America, said that despite the setback in Kansas, the drive to outlaw abortion remains a strong cause for Republicans, and noted that abortion rights groups, while invigorated, have a lot of catching up to do.

“The other side is going to have to finally do what we’ve had to do for last 50 years — put a ground game together, put [communication plans] together, raise money, go before constituencies and work for what they want,” she said. “We’ve been doing this all along.”

To critics who say the antiabortion movement pushed too far following the Supreme Court decision, Nance said that was still to be determined in the upcoming election. Instead of reevaluating legislative strategy, she emphasized more on-the-ground organizing.

“We’re going to have to fight for it, in particularly some of the more purple states,” she said. “I am so happy to go make the case.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.