Democrats, emboldened after Kansas abortion vote, eye fall campaign

Voter mark their ballots during the primary election and abortion referendum at a Wyandotte County polling station in Kansas City, Kansas, U.S. August 2, 2022.

Democrats on Wednesday voiced fresh optimism about the midterm elections after a decisive victory protecting abortion rights in Kansas, with party strategists touting the win as a potential inflection point that proved they can motivate voters to turn out and shift the electoral landscape in their favor this fall.

In the first direct test at the ballot box of attitudes about abortion law since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June, Kansas voters on Tuesday strongly rejected a constitutional amendment that would have opened a path to removing access to the procedure in the state. Democrats pointed to the moment as the strongest evidence yet that the conservative-leaning high court’s ruling and other efforts by Republicans to curb abortion rights would backfire politically.

“It’s a game changer,” said Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., in an interview with The Washington Post. “Kansas is the earthquake that is going to rattle every assumption about what is going to happen this fall.”

Some Republicans privately acknowledged that what unfolded in Kansas – massive turnout in a conservative state for a landslide in favor of preserving abortion rights – was concerning. The outcome has to “send a cold chill up the spines” of many Republicans, said one GOP strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity to be more candid.

Publicly, many Republicans had little to say about the vote, with party operatives pointing to rising costs and other challenges Americans are confronting as more pressing concerns. The dueling messages set the stage for a fall campaign in which each major party is poised to focus on different issues.

Democrats, largely in alignment with the abortion rights movement, have increasingly campaigned on abortion rights and against Republican rollbacks of some personal freedoms. The GOP, which has strong links to antiabortion activists, has sought to tap into pocketbook concerns and the disapproval by most Americans of the job President Joe Biden is doing.

Biden highlighted the Kansas vote on Wednesday, saying that Republicans “don’t have a clue about the power of American women. Last night in Congress and Kansas, they found out.” Biden also signed an executive order Wednesday directing his Health and Human Services secretary to consider actions to assist patients traveling out of state for abortions.

Democrats have been eyeing the fall campaign with trepidation and are eager to tap into favorable issues that motivate voters to turn out for them. After the Supreme Court ruling, many Democrats started reorienting their campaigns more heavily on abortion, framing their candidacies as bulwarks against GOP efforts to pare down reproductive rights.

But until Tuesday, there was no direct proof that such a strategy might be successful. Now, Democrats have their sights set on future ballot measures in several states such as Michigan, a marquee battleground where they are hoping to see one this fall.

Even activists who followed developments in Kansas closely were surprised by the turnout. Nearly 1 million voters turned out in the state, almost doubling turnout from the 2018 primary election, according to an analysis by TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm.

“It confirms what we suspected – this has the possibility of being a major turnout issue,” said Christina Reynolds, a spokeswoman for Emily’s List, which aims to elect candidates who support abortion rights. “What we saw last night is this can drive turnout in a way that hasn’t happened before.”

Democrats noted that in addition to running up large margins in suburban areas, there was stronger than anticipated support for abortion rights in rural counties where the numbers were either closer than expected, even in places where support for the amendment prevailed.

With the federal constitutional right to abortion erased by the Supreme Court, activists are turning to ballot measures, state races and legislative battles to protect and expand abortion rights on an ad hoc basis. Democrats and abortion rights activists sound increasingly hopeful that such efforts can dovetail with performing well in elections for state and federal offices.

Facing stiff political head winds, Democrats are trying to boost turnout for House, Senate and gubernatorial races, where many candidates are promoting efforts they would take to protect abortion rights, including trying to codify abortion rights into law through a congressional vote.

“This really erases the question of whether there is an enthusiasm gap,” said Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood, in an interview with The Post. “People who were not motivated to vote are getting energized.”

She signaled that Democrats will use abortion as part of a larger theme this fall. “It is about more than abortion; it’s about whether the government has the ability to take away your freedoms.”

Still, it remains to be seen if Democrats can effectively connect abortion rights to the choice voters make between candidates in the fall. One way that Democrats will try to make this connection in the fall is to highlight what Republican candidates have said on the topic.

“Democrats are holding Republicans accountable using their own words,” said Marshall Cohen, the political director at the Democratic Governors Association.

He pointed to Tudor Dixon, who just became the GOP gubernatorial nominee in Michigan, predicting that Democrats will run ads replaying her comments that abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape or incest. “These are extreme positions that they are saying publicly,” Cohen said.

Most Republican strategists eyeing battleground races have steered away from abortion when possible. Michael McAdams, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee, said that the “economic mess” will be the “number one issue in every competitive House race.”

Several Republicans focused on Senate races noted that there will not be any abortion-related ballot measures this fall in states with competitive Senate campaigns, saying they therefore don’t believe the Kansas turnout will be replicated elsewhere.

At least four other states will have abortion measures on the ballot this November. These include initiatives in California and Vermont, where measures would protect abortion access within those states.

Michigan voters are expected to see a measure that would expand and protect abortion access in the state on the November ballot after activists turned in more than 750,000 signatures, which was more than twice the number required. The ballot measure must still receive final clearance, and is pending a sign-off on the signatures.

Antiabortion activists vowed to redouble their efforts in the wake of the Kansas results. “The stakes for the pro-life movement in the upcoming midterm elections could not be higher, and there will be many more factors in play,” said Mallory Carroll, spokeswoman for SBA Pro-Life America. “It is critical that pro-life candidates go on offense to expose the extremism of Democrats’ policy goals for nationalized abortion on demand paid for by taxpayers.”

The group put $1.7 million into their unsuccessful Kansas effort, and along with affiliated groups, plan to pour an additional $78 million in elections this year.

Michigan, a key swing state in recent presidential elections, has a closely watched gubernatorial election this fall, where incumbent Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, D, is hoping to defeat Dixon. Democrats also hope to flip the state Senate from red to blue and win key battleground U.S. House races.

“It shows the motivation to vote is super strong on our side,” said Michigan state Sen. Jim Ananich, D, the minority leader in the upper chamber.

Some activists who oppose the proposed measure on Michigan’s ballot say the question voters face in November would be different than the one Kansans decided on Tuesday and warned about learning too many lessons from it.

“It’s very difficult to compare the two ballot measures,” said Christen Pollo, a spokeswoman for Citizens to Support Michigan Women and Children, a coalition of antiabortion activists opposing the ballot measure. “What happened in Kansas does not affect our campaign.”

Michigan’s ballot measure would add language that protects access to abortion and other reproductive health services and block a 1931 abortion ban from taking effect if it prevails in the courts. But Pollo said that the Michigan measure goes much farther than the Kansas proposal by tying the hands of lawmakers from creating limitations on abortion, from parental consent laws to bans on late-term abortions.

“People are extremely confused by and very concerned by how extreme this abortion amendment is,” Pollo said. Although she sees the abortion battles in Michigan and Kansas as very different, Pollo conceded one similarity, “I think it will be a top issue for voters,” she said. “Even for those who wouldn’t say [abortion] is a top issue for them, it is taking center stage.”

Voters in Kentucky and Montana will also consider new abortion restrictions.

The Kentucky ballot measure would make explicit that the state constitution does not guarantee the right to an abortion or require any government funding of abortions. The Montana measure would create personhood protections and require doctors to provide lifesaving treatment to infants “born alive” after an attempted abortion.

Democrats signaled that they will intensify their focus on the issue in coming months all across the country, even beyond states where abortion measures are on the ballot, and take the fight directly to Republicans.

“Theirs is a deeply unpopular position that will backfire in battleground House districts,” said Helen Kalla, a spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “And we look forward to reminding voters of Republicans’ toxic agenda every day until November.”