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Analysis

Here’s a look at possible ripple effects of the surprising vote to keep abortion legal in Kansas

Lawn signs opposing the ballot question in Lawrence, Kansas, last month.Katie Currid/NYT

Voters in Kansas were asked Tuesday on their primary ballot a simple question: Do you favor removing state constitutional protections for abortion access?

Coming six weeks after the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which eliminated the federal constitutional right to abortion, this question seemed teed up for victory.

We are talking about Kansas, after all. A place that not only voted for Donald Trump in the last two presidential elections but has voted for a Democrat for president only once since 1940. Further, Kansas has Republican supermajorities in the legislature. And those lawmakers put the issue on the ballot, knowing that the midterm primary would likely have low turnout and more Republican voters, given there were more contested Republican primaries up and down the ballot.

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Every pre-election poll suggested passage was likely. If Kansas voters had picked “yes” then the language in the state constitution would have been repealed, and that would have set up lawmakers to pass a total abortion ban in the state when the next session starts in January.

But none of that happened. Indeed, the side favoring abortion rights won by over 20 points.

This is a big deal for a few reasons.

First, there is the immediate and real matter of abortion access for women not just in Kansas, but for those living in neighboring states. States bordering Kansas include Missouri, Arkansas, and Oklahoma, where abortion has been banned. One could even see where people in the Texas Panhandle would drive to Kansas, where there are currently four facilities that perform the procedure. (Abortion is still legal in Nebraska, which shares a long border with Kansas, but the governor has called for a special session to take up further abortion restrictions.)

Second, it suggests that the political backlash to the Dobbs decision might be bigger than any political professional imagined.

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This vote wasn’t a fluke. Abortion was the issue that drove turnout to the highest in memory for a midterm primary election. It was the galvanizing issue that brought millions in political spending and loads of out-of-state volunteers. And it prevailed not only in progressive areas and swing areas of the state like the Kansas City suburbs, but even in some areas considered more conservative. It was a complete and total victory.

Third, it may change the political conversation with three months to go before the midterm election. Polls so far have suggested that the Dobbs decision and abortion, generally, were being drowned out in the conversation by issues like inflation and the economy.

But what happened in Kansas may show that the polls are wrong and that if Democrats put abortion to the forefront, it is a way to mobilize voters. One lesson from Kansas is that abortion-rights groups had an effective ground game that got their voters to the polls, while groups opposing abortion spent millions of dollars on television ads but did not convert them to votes.

Consider this statistic: 70 percent of new voter registrations in Kansas since the June 24 Dobbs decision were women and the registrations were eight percent more Democratic, according to TargetSmart, a political data firm.

Groups like Planned Parenthood were able to identify their potential voters, convince them to register to vote, and then to vote on a hot day in August.

Democrats, especially in swing areas, may now stress abortion more than before. In New England, where abortion rights are heavily supported, this might be the main talking point from Democrats. Look for it to feature in races like the New Hampshire Senate race, the Maine governor’s race, and congressional races in New Hampshire and Rhode Island.

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All that said, what happened in Kansas, as surprising as it was, might be hard to translate to Democratic midterm victories this fall. After all, for the ballot proposition in Kansas to win this big, many Republicans had to have voted for it. But choosing between a Republican and a Democratic candidate for, say, Congress, is a very different thing.

Still, the win was huge for the abortion-rights community, which seemed to be losing momentum this summer.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.