WASHINGTON — After voters in the red state of Kansas resoundingly rejected a measure that would have paved the way for an abortion ban, Democrats around the country were experiencing an unusual emotion ahead of an election season that had, until now, appeared dire: hope.
“This is great news for Democrats,” Vicki Hiatt, chair of the Kansas Democratic Party, said Wednesday.
Driven by a stunning surge in turnout, the rejection of the ban is the first major statement on abortion rights by voters since the Supreme Court in June overturned Roe v. Wade. It suggests the aggressive tack by Republicans to limit access to abortion may be backfiring, even in one of the nation’s most conservative states, offering Democrats an opportunity to make electoral gains — or at least to better protect their turf— by stressing abortion rights.
“It was always like, ‘Uhhhh, don’t talk about abortion.’ But we as a party here put it very front and center,” Hiatt said. “And I think nationally we’re starting to see Democrats move toward that messaging.”
Midterm elections are often ruthless on the party that holds the White House, and high inflation paired with President Biden’s sagging approval ratings had Democrats especially gloomy about their prospects. But the results in Kansas have party strategists and activists recalibrating their expectations, hoping the Supreme Court’s overreach will deliver for them in races up and down the ballot.
“The question becomes the degree to which Republicans might underperform and that a Democratic base and swing voters could form a coalition that could allow Democrats to hold on, and that seems more likely this morning than it did yesterday,” said Tom Bonier, chief executive of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm.
Democrats across the country celebrated the surprise victory immediately. “The people of Kansas spoke and said this is a matter of defense of basic principles of liberty and freedom in America,” Vice President Kamala Harris said from an abortion rights event at the White House. “Kansas was just the start,” a celebratory Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer said on the Senate floor. “If it’s going to happen in Kansas, it’s going to happen in a whole lot of states.” Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii tweeted Tuesday night that it’s “time to reevaluate the conventional wisdom about the midterms after this vote in Kansas,” given the obvious anger in the electorate.
Some of the most obvious battlegrounds next in line are those states where abortion is set to be on the ballot in November, which include Michigan, Kentucky, California, and Vermont. Voters in the swing state of Michigan are poised to vote on a measure that would expand and protect abortion access, which could drive up turnout for candidates like Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Democrats seeking to hold their House seats.
But Democrats are also optimistic that the the enthusiasm on display in Kansas, particularly among women voters, will translate to races even where abortion is not directly on the ballot. Representative Sharice Davids, the only Democrat in the Kansas delegation, said one takeaway from the result was that in the “effort to push back against some of these extreme policies, maybe we’re seeing that the path forward is one through the middle and not these far, extreme positions.”
Davids’s district, which overlaps with much of the part of Kansas that carried the vote for abortion rights, is a vulnerable one for Democrats, and she said her constituents have brought up reproductive rights with her. Helen Kalla, deputy communications director for the House Democrats’ campaign arm, said the results confirmed that voters “react really strongly and in a negative way when politicians try to take away their access to abortion.”
Some Republicans downplayed the implications of the vote on Wednesday, saying they believe the economy will still outweigh any other considerations in November. But others in the GOP warned the Kansas vote shows Republicans can overreach on abortion — and face consequences for it.
“The Kansas ballot initiative proves that voters — including a segment of Republicans — aren’t necessarily going to give the GOP carte blanche,” said Ken Spain, a Republican strategist who has worked with the GOP congressional campaign arm. Still, he said that there is a risk of overinterpreting the results, and that the economy is still a major factor in the midterms. “With the primaries now largely behind them, Republicans should pivot to the number one issue motivating general election voters — inflation,” he said.
Democrats faced an uphill battle in Kansas ahead of Tuesday’s vote, given the party is usually outnumbered during primary elections. Democrats also launched an intense education campaign since the language on the ballot could be confusing.
But the issue itself proved a powerful draw: at least 914,300 votes were cast on the constitutional amendment question, far more than the total number of registered voters who participated in the 2020 primary, approximately 636,000, and in the 2018 primary, as well, according to the secretary of state. The margin in favor of protecting abortion access was huge — nearly 20 percentage points, according to the state’s unofficial results as of Wednesday evening. Even in large swaths of rural Kansas, voters supported abortion rights at higher margins than they did for Biden in the 2020 election, according to a New York Times analysis.
“That was kind of an eye-opener to me,” said former Dodge City mayor Joyce Warshaw, a registered Republican who voted to preserve abortion rights. “I personally believe that this Roe v. Wade is going to be a very determining factor when people go to the polls in November.” Women, she said, are “wide awake now.”
Bonier noted the intense engagement from women voters in Kansas, which spiked after the Supreme Court decision. About 70 percent of new voter registrations after June 24, the day the court issued its Dobbs ruling, were women, according to his analysis. He predicted that enthusiasm could translate to suburban districts around the country.
“I think the Kansas results are an indicator that Democrats are in a better position in those districts than maybe most people thought before seeing the results,” he said.
Tuesday’s victory has weighty policy implications, as well. Kansas is the closest state to several nearby states with trigger bans on abortion that went into effect after Roe was overturned. The vote likely protects its status as a haven of abortion rights, and is a sign to some Democrats that voters are paying attention to the Supreme Court decision’s effect on people’s lives.
“One of the most powerful things that’s come out after Roe v. Wade being overturned is women’s voices and stories being told,” Hiatt said. “I think that it was too easy for the other side to just paint it as a kind of a black and white issue.”