KANSAS CITY, Mo. — On a drive through a Kansas City suburb, Rachel Sweet pointed out the church she recently started attending.
The selection process for a new place of worship went faster than expected, she explained, since she was able to rule out churches with signs supporting a constitutional amendment that would have paved the way for an abortion ban in Kansas.
But while she passed up those churches for her membership, Sweet made it clear she didn’t prejudge how the congregants in those churches would vote. Instead, she sees them as potential abortion-rights supporters.
“There is a whole other group of voters … that come with a lot of caveats about how they feel, right? They’re like, ‘I’m pro-life, but’ or ‘I’m pro-choice but’ or ‘I don’t like abortion, but,’ and whatever comes after the ‘but’ is what we actually really need to listen to,” said Sweet.
Sweet came across many people who would not necessarily be stereotyped as abortions rights supporters as she managed successful campaigns against the Kansas amendment and another anti-abortion constitutional amendment voted on in Kentucky a few months later.
The Supreme Court’s decision last summer that overturned the federal right to an abortion sent Sweet, 31, into overdrive focused on two states that share traditionally conservative values. In Kansas, she led an effort to reject an amendment that would have cleared the way for an abortion ban there, just across the state line from her home in Missouri. Then she moved to Kentucky for a few months, where voters rejected an amendment that would have explicitly denied that abortion rights were protected by the state constitution.
With the two successful campaigns behind her, Sweet has had time to reflect on the lessons learned from those hard-fought victories, including what many activists on her side of the issue misunderstand about voters who are persuadable on abortion rights.
“Most people see that there are a lot of shades of gray on this issue,” Sweet said. Many voters would never get an abortion themselves, she said, but if someone they loved needed one, they would be first to offer them a ride. “Those people can hold those two views simultaneously and it doesn’t feel like a conflict at all to them,” Sweet explained. “They can believe both of those things very adamantly.”
The mistake her allies on the abortion rights side often make, she said, is pressuring these voters out of their comfort zones.
“We need to make sure we’re not alienating them as they deal with their very complicated feelings about this topic,” she said. “We need to be, in some ways, the soft place for them to land.”
From the start of her career, Sweet embraced a brand of politics that aimed to alienate no one.
Sly James, the former mayor of Kansas City, Mo., who hired Sweet for her first full-time job answering constituent calls and later promoted her to a policy role, described her ability to argue for her position “without being a pain in the ass.”
“She had to deal with the public. When you’re in city government, that means just about anybody at any time,” James said.
Then, as a lobbyist for Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, she brought the same values into play as she was introduced to the groups that would become Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, the vote-no coalition for the amendment she helped defeat years later.
While abortions rights advocates saw some success at that time, Sweet had a front-row seat to the kind of state-based efforts by the anti-abortion rights movement that ultimately resulted in Roe’s demise. The amendment was already on track for a vote before the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision last year that overturned the almost-50 year precedent of a federal right to an abortion. When the question was in front of Kansas voters, the ballot initiative was the first post-Roe electoral test on the issue of abortion.
In February 2022, Sweet was hired as campaign manager of the vote-no coalition, a group that included Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes. Unlike a campaign that responds to a single candidate, she answered to a group of five coalition partners with competing ideas about the best path to victory. This at times meant making decisions that left members unsatisfied.
In one instance, Emily Wales, chief executive of Planned Parenthood Great Plains Votes, said there was a debate over how inclusive to make the language in TV ads. Though the coalition wanted to use language that included the broader pool of people who can get pregnant, including trans and nonbinary people, the polling showed voters were talking about women as the demographic most affected by the issue.
“Many Kansans [wouldn’t] know what we were talking about if we said in an ad ‘people who can get pregnant,’” Wales said. “It felt exclusionary to us, but we needed to communicate really effectively.”
Sweet was “instrumental” in weighing the options, she said. “We had to sort of talk through, this may be the ad that works in this moment, but then long term as a coalition we’re committing to educate and explain who all actually gets abortion care.”
Sweet said knowing the target of a campaign and where voters are coming from is critical to a successful campaign. The coalition ultimately used the word “women” in its collective messaging.
“Our voters and our base are not the same thing,” Sweet explained.
Fresh off the victory in Kansas, where voters rejected the amendment by almost 20 percentage points, she joined the campaign in Kentucky. There, another coalition of abortion access advocates had already been doing groundwork leading up to the November vote on an amendment that would have established that there is no right to abortion in the state constitution. The vote was particularly critical because in defeating the constitutional amendment, they kept alive a legal challenge to the state’s six-week ban and trigger ban, a separate, near-total ban that went into effect after the Dobbs decision and that together outlaw nearly all abortions in the state. Those abortion restrictions are still in effect as the challenge plays out.
“Rachel was an incredible partner to have; she brought a lot of attention from people that we would never have had attention from,” said Tamarra Wieder, the Kentucky state director for Planned Parenthood Alliance Advocates. But, she said, much of the work was done by the people who were already there ahead of Sweet’s arrival. “It’s these small people that don’t get the attention that did the biggest needle-moving work.”
In Kentucky, again, Sweet found herself recalibrating her approach for a new target audience. The Kansas campaign had a libertarian strain with messaging designed to show how the amendment could limit personal freedom; in Kentucky, where providing virtually all abortions was already illegal, voters were already familiar with the hurdles lack of access created.
“She was focused on the evidence,” said Chris Hartman, executive director of the Fairness Campaign, an LGBTQ+ coalition partner in Kentucky. “She came in with the success and the vocabulary of success from Kansas, but came in too with the understanding that Kentucky … isn’t Kansas, and that we needed to develop messaging that worked based on the commonwealth of Kentucky.”
Kentucky and Kansas convinced Sweet that it’s imperative to remove amendment campaigns from a partisan framework. In Kansas, a large share of unaffiliated voters turned out to vote in the August 2022 primary. And in Kentucky, while the anti-abortion constitutional amendment was rejected, US Senator Rand Paul, a staunch anti-abortion ally, was soundly reelected.
“Our job is to talk to everybody,” Sweet said. “I think when you make this about partisan politics, it just turns a lot of people off.”
Sweet gets calls from abortion access advocates in other states, hoping to glean insights from her. She’s taking her time deciding what she wants to do next, but she’s been happy to give them advice: Do a poll. Do the research. Figure out what the path to victory is.
Sweet knows her advice might sound basic but said there’s an urge from some parts of the reproductive rights movement to skip those steps and start immediately communicating directly with voters. That sense of urgency isn’t unfounded: The overturning of Roe v. Wade is still fresh on people’s minds; the abortion landscape is ever-shifting, and some state legislatures are attempting to raise the threshold to make it harder to put initiatives on the ballots.
In Kansas and Kentucky, the amendments were added to the ballot by legislatures looking to restrict abortion access. But successful abortion rights amendments were also added to the ballot in such states as California, Vermont, and Michigan to enshrine the right to an abortion in the state constitution.
Constitutional amendments are “a useful tool if you are a state that has a conservative state legislature that is anti-abortion, and you think that you have a public that is broadly not anti-abortion,” Sweet said. She listed Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Ohio as examples of places that could potentially pursue such a path.
In spite of the stakes and the pace of change, she’s calm about the work ahead.
“I think things are very bad, to be clear. I think things are very bad in lots of places,” Sweet said. Then she added: “I am a political operative that knows that there’s only so much that can happen between now and the next election cycle … Maybe that does make me a little more chill. And because I think we showed everyone that this stuff is possible, right?”
Lissandra Villa Huerta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LissandraVilla.