Kansas Democrats scored a surprise win on abortion rights. November will show if they can do it again


Kansas Governor Laura Kelly is petite, soft-spoken and rarely heard on the national stage. But on August 2nd, when Kansans shocked the nation by voting to preserve the right to abortion in the state constitution, Kelly’s voting statement was based on Roe v. He read it as a new model for Democrats navigating the uncertain politics of the post-Wade era.

“Kansans stood up for basic rights today,” Kelly wrote in a tweet. “We rejected divisive legislation that threatened our economic future and jeopardized women’s access to health care.”

Another tweet called supporters of the ballot measure “extremists” and warned that they “want to take our state back in time.”

All this in a state where Donald Trump won by double digits. Twice.

Kelly, who made national headlines when he was elected to office in 2018, is one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents this year as he battles for a second term in his reliably red state.

Despite his staunch opposition to a ballot measure that would have allowed lawmakers to strip abortion rights from the state constitution, and his long history of rolling back abortion restrictions during his 14 years as governor and state legislator, Kelly is much less his campaign focused on abortion.

“The August 2nd vote made it abundantly clear how that can be, that Kansans are inclined to elect a very moderate, common-sense, thoughtful person to the office of governor to run their state and make sure basic services are delivered.” Kelly said in an interview. “What they want as governor is to focus on kitchen table issues. You know, they want me to focus on economics. And we did that.”

Voters, Democratic candidates and organizers say the issue of abortion has emerged as a source of debate and conversation among voters here, especially since the referendum. And while the economy is still a major issue, abortion often comes up as a concern.

That said, Kelly is fighting for political survival in an unusual landscape: economic headwinds and political polarization seem likely to make it difficult for any Democrat in a purple or red state to survive. But also, a burst of energy, fueled by the Supreme Court’s reversal of 50 years of legal precedent on abortion, has given Democrats a new opportunity.

Kelly has decided to plant her re-election campaign firmly on the domestic issues of Kansas: eliminating the food tax, school funding and the state’s fiscal management.

It’s a strategy designed to counter efforts by his Republican opponent, state Attorney General Derek Schmidt, to connect him with national Democratic figures such as President Joe Biden and US President Nancy Pelosi, as well as national issues such as immigration, inflation and the culture war. the subjects

A recent Schmidt ad accused Kelly of supporting “groups that push critical race theory and the transgender agenda.”

“Laura Kelly will not stand up to the liberal agenda in Washington. But I will,” Schmidt says in the ad.

In Kansas, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats nearly 2 to 1. And if Kelly is to replicate the coalition that won him the governor’s mansion in 2018, he will need to both maximize Democratic voters and recruit moderate Republican voters.

“As a Democrat, you have to have Republican support to win in Kansas, at the state level or in some of these congressional districts,” said Tom Bonier, CEO of Democratic research firm TargetSmart. “Republicans make up the majority of voters in the state. And so, in the vote on that constitutional amendment in August, we saw that a large number of Republicans really supported the “no vote” -pro-[abortion rights] position”.

On the ground in Kansas, a familiar story is playing out: the economy is the primary concern of voters.

But after August’s referendum, in which nearly 60 percent of Kansans voted to protect access to abortion, the issue is still on voters’ minds.

Both Kelly and Schmidt have come under pressure in recent debates over abortion.

Kelly firmly but briefly reiterated her position on abortion, framing it as a form of government for the autonomy of a woman’s body.

“I think 60 percent of Kansas said they don’t want that government intruding on people’s personal lives,” Kelly said Sept. 10 at the Kansas State Fair, to cheers from supporters. “I’ve been consistent on this issue since I entered the state Senate 18 years ago. And I’ll be consistent no matter what.

Schmidt said that the will of the voters must be respected, but that the issue has not been resolved.

“I think the biggest challenge going forward is going to be defending those restrictions and limitations that are on the books,” Schmidt said. “I believe they will be subject to the court, I am committed to defend them going forward.”

Well, the ballot initiative results have cast doubt on whether abortion in Kansas is an issue Democrats can use to win over moderate Republican voters.

Retirees Linda and Jim Schottler are registered Republicans in Manhattan, Kansas, and say the abortion referendum changed the way the state talks about the issue – and politics in general.

“A lot of people don’t talk about politics when they join a band because they’re afraid of stepping on their toes,” Jim Schottler said. “But since the referendum, I feel like a lot of people are talking about it and maybe trying to free up the conversation about that polarization.”

But when it comes to national politics and the economy, their mood is much more ambivalent.

“I’m not sure I agree with Biden on a lot of issues, but I don’t agree with the other party right now. So it’s a difficult situation,” said Linda Schottler.

However, the couple voted no on the abortion ballot measure and plan to support Kelly in November.

“We voted no, believing that a woman’s right to her own body should be her decision, not someone else’s,” said Linda Schottler.

“It wasn’t our right to decide for someone else,” Jim Schottler.

AmyJo Kneisel, a Kansas native who recently returned to the state, says she plans to re-register as a Republican before the general election. His younger sister, Angela Dawdy, is a Democrat. Despite their opposing political affiliations, where they find common ground is access to abortion.

“I have an 11-year-old daughter and I want her to have opportunities in life. And that’s a huge opportunity for me,” said Dawdy. “I hope in the future people will make choices based more on the ideology of who’s there, not just Republican or Democrat.

“I’ve never been pro-abortion, but then again, what’s right for me might not be right for someone else,” Kneisel said. “Well, don’t tell our dad this, but I might end up voting a little more Democrat based on what’s been going on with the party lately.”

“We like to evaluate both issues with both parties. So we don’t just go in and blindly vote based on our party. We listen and put our ear to the ground,” added Kneisel.

Democratic Reps. Kelly and Sharice Davids, who are running for re-election in Kansas’ 3rd Congressional District, are hoping to find more Republican voters, as are Schottlers and Kneisel. In 2020, Davids won her district by a 10-point margin over Republican Amanda Adkins, who is running against her again this cycle.

But after redistricting, Kansas’ 3rd District could be a steeper hill to climb with Davids adding rural communities and conservatives. And yet, she says, voters bring up the issue of reproductive rights in conversation.

“I try to talk and address and work on the issues that people are talking to me about,” Davids said in an interview. “I met with the people whose purpose of the meeting was to talk about the farm bill. And at the end of the meeting, I said to the people, well, where do you stand on the constitutional amendment.”

“People are very emotional when they tell me this thing and they want to make sure that someone like me or some governor or some other politician can get the care that they say to someone. need in an emergency situation,” he added.

The referendum has also made state Democrats more enthusiastic about the possibility of bringing new voters to the polls, especially young women and voters of color.

“I think there was a big question about what to do [the Supreme Court abortion decision] election and would have it in the November election,” Bonier said. “And so it was Kansas that saw women, young voters and voters of color being so engaged and at such a high rate in those elections.

“It proves that this issue is something that can motivate these voters to turn out in this election, which really looked like it was going to be a red wave election for sure.”

Democratic organizer Carla Rivas-D’Amico of Common Sense Kansas, 27, has set her sights on the state’s Latino community, which makes up 13 percent of the state’s population and is Kansas’ fastest growing minority population.

In the August primary, the share of the Latino vote was the second largest in Kansas history, ahead of the share of voters in the 2018 general election, according to data firm Catalist.

“Voters sent a very clear message that they want politicians to stay out of their private medical decisions and instead focus on creating jobs, strengthening the economy and funding our schools,” Rivas-D’Amico said.

Late in the evening at a Kansas City neighborhood center in Olathe, Kansas, Rivas-D’Amico, whose parents are from Venezuela, gave a training session in Spanish to about 20 Hispanic volunteers preparing the canvas in the area. More than 1 in 10 Olathe residents are Hispanic. She wept as she described the importance of building community political power.

“We deserve to be convinced,” Rivas-D’Amico said.

Later, walking the streets of a predominantly working-class Latino neighborhood, Rivas-D’Amico said voters here talk to him most about the economy, but among organizers, if you go after those votes, there’s likely to be new momentum. make a difference

“This is one of the most competitive gubernatorial and congressional races in the country and every vote makes a difference,” he said. “Winning 60% was unexpected for a lot of people, but it restored confidence that when we go out there and organize ourselves, that we talk together, that’s the only way forward, that we win.”