What the abortion result in Kansas could mean for the midterms

A massive victory for abortion rights on Tuesday has bolstered Democratic hopes that the issue will be a winning one for them in November’s midterm elections.

In conservative Kansas, a state that Donald Trump won by 15 points in 2020, voters overwhelmingly rejected a Republican-sponsored ballot initiative that would have stripped abortion protections from the state constitution.

The result was a surprise. Polls had indicated that the measure had significantly more support than it wound up receiving. And Republicans in the state Legislature had placed the initiative on Tuesday’s primary ballot, rather than the November ballot, in hopes that a smaller and more conservative electorate would help it succeed.

Additionally, organizers argued that the language of the ballot measure was designed to confuse voters and that ads in support of it were misleading. In the end, however, turnout was massive — nearly double the number who turned out for the 2018 primary and triple the 2014 number, despite a lack of marquee statewide races for either party.

A long line of voters wraps around the Sedgwick County Historic Courthouse in Wichita, Kan., on the last day of early voting on Aug. 1.
A long line of voters wraps around the Sedgwick County Historic Courthouse in Wichita, Kan., on Monday, the last day of early voting. (Travis Heying/Wichita Eagle via AP)

The results were driven in large part by unaffiliated, independent voters who could not vote in either party’s primary. More than 100,000 of them went to the polls to vote on the measure, which was known formally as Amendment 2.

It was the first test of how the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade might affect November’s midterm elections. In a Yahoo News/YouGov poll taken immediately after the June ruling, only 33% of Americans agreed with the decision, a level of discontent Democrats hoped to capitalize on.

Planned Parenthood Great Plains, one of the leading opponents of the measure, credited the victory to “a groundswell of grassroots support and a broad coalition of reasonable, thoughtful Kansans across the state who put health care over politics.” President Biden, whose approval ratings remain stubbornly low amid high inflation, issued a statement saying the Kansas 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.”

Abortion supporters Alie Utley, left, and Joe Moyer react to the failed constitutional amendment proposal at the Kansas Constitutional Freedom Primary Election Watch Party in Overland Par on Aug. 2.
Abortion supporters Alie Utley, left, and Joe Moyer react to the failed constitutional amendment proposal in Overland Park, Kan., on Tuesday. (Dave Kaup/AFP via Getty Images)

Public sentiment is in line with the result in Kansas, according to surveys. A July Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that 54% of Americans said abortion is “a constitutional right that women in all states should have some access to,” versus 30% who said individual states should be allowed to outlaw it.

“It did not take much for Kansans to look at Missouri, Oklahoma or Arkansas and say, ‘Bans are real, they’re actually taking effect in this post-Roe environment, and we could lose total access to care,’” Planned Parenthood Great Plains president Emily Wales said in a press availability Wednesday afternoon when asked about the campaign’s messaging. “So when we talked to voters, whether that was through traditional methods like canvassing or mailers or TV ads, we did talk about government being involved in your personal medical decisions, because that’s what we’re seeing in these other states where the government decides whether it deems you worthy of getting care.”

In another Yahoo News/YouGov poll taken over the weekend, 43% percent of Americans said they felt Democrats would do a better job on abortion, as opposed to 30% who said Republicans would. There was also a slight uptick in Democrats who wanted the party to focus most on “preserving abortion rights nationwide,” with candidates pushing abortion as a topic in some of their latest ads.

There is at least one caveat for Democrats celebrating the Kansas results, however — the success of ballot initiatives aligned with the Democratic platform does not always result in Democratic candidates doing better.

In 2018, more than 60% of Missouri voters opted for a hike in the minimum wage while also sending Republican candidate Josh Hawley to the Senate over Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill. That same year in Florida, a measure restoring voting rights to felons who had completed their sentences earned more than 60% of the vote while Republicans won statewide races for governor and the U.S. Senate. Even states like Oklahoma — where Republican candidates regularly win presidential and Senate elections by 30 points or more — have voted to expand Medicaid, a Democratic priority.

A sign urging voters to reject a state constitutional amendment declaring there is no right to abortion is seen during the primary election and abortion referendum at a Wyandotte County polling station in Kansas City, Kan., on Aug. 2.
A sign against the amendment in Kansas City, Kan., on Tuesday. (Eric Cox/Reuters)

Whether the fight over abortion can help Democrats retain control of Congress remains to be seen, but there are a number of high-profile races in swing states where the issue is already front and center. Among them:

  • In Pennsylvania, Josh Shapiro, the Democratic nominee for governor, has been hammering his opponent, Doug Mastriano, over the Republican’s proposal for a full abortion ban in the state. Lt. Gov John Fetterman, the Democrats’ candidate for Senate, has made his desire to codify abortion protections part of his regular stump speech. Polls indicate Fetterman and Shapiro are both leading their Republican opponents.

  • In Arizona, the Republican candidates for Senate and governor are both stridently opposed to abortion.

  • In Michigan, Democratic hopes to retain the governor’s mansion could be buoyed by the likely presence of a ballot initiative protecting abortion rights. Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer supports the measure.

  • In Georgia, Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock is attempting to hold onto his seat as his opponent, Herschel Walker, calls for a full ban on abortion with no exceptions. Recent polling has shown Warnock with a consistent but slim advantage over Walker.

A number of states will also follow Kansas’s lead in offering direct ballot initiatives. In Kentucky, voters will decide whether to add language to the state constitution explicitly stating that the document does not protect abortion. In Montana, voters will have the option of approving language restricting abortion access.

Meanwhile, in California and Vermont, voters will choose whether to add language guaranteeing legal abortion to their state constitutions.

“What I hope that politicians or folks campaigning for office take from this is that you don’t have to shy away from being an advocate for reproductive care and for privacy, and for bodily integrity, because those are winning issues,” Wales said.

Abortion rights supporters in Overland Park, Kan., react to the news that voters had rejected a state constitutional amendment that would have declared there is no right to abortion on Aug. 2.
Abortion rights supporters in Overland Park, Kan., on Tuesday react to the news that the measure was rejected. (Evert Nelson/USA Today Network via Reuters)