Protestors carry signs at a June 24, 2022, rally in Kansas City, Missouri, after the U.S. Supreme Court eliminated abortion rights. (Margaret Mellott/Kansas Reflector)
A singular mystery looms over election season this year in Kansas.
After all, it was only Aug. 2 that a breathtakingly large majority of Kansans — nearly 60% of voters — turned out to protect abortion rights. They rejected an amendment to the state constitution that would have allowed the Legislature to limit abortion access, up to and including an outright ban on the procedure.
The vote justly made national news. While the outcome wasn’t a partisan one, as I argued at the time, I certainly expected to see more Democrats pick up on the issue in subsequent weeks and months.
Instead, Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly has stuck to her economic development message, adding in grace notes about fully funding public education. Attorney general candidate Chris Mann has hammered Kris Kobach on dark money and his record. One notable exception: U.S. Rep. Sharice Davids has pressed the issue against GOP opponent Amanda Adkins.
Republicans’ reluctance to engage makes sense.
They have a position that puts them at odds with the majority of the electorate. They now understand, if they didn’t before, that the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has forced them to advocate for deeply unpopular policies. Americans — and Kansans — may not love abortion, but they do not want to ban it outright.
Yet Democrats now have the golden opportunity to spotlight a cornerstone issue for their party. Kansas voters demonstrated that abortion rights transcend party affiliation or ideology. Why not, then, use abortion as a wedge issue for a discontented electorate?
Three possible reasons
I have a handful of theories.
First off, the dominant narrative this election season has been about the economy and cost of living. With an electorate focused on inflation and gas prices, voters might see politicians pontificating about abortion rights as a distraction.
Republicans certainly believe that. You could tell at the Kansas State Fair gubernatorial debate, where GOP candidate Derek Schmidt acknowledged his stance, jabbed at Kelly and moved on.
“I’m pro-life,” the attorney general said. “I supported the constitutional amendment. Kansas voters have decided, which does not mean the discussion has ended.”
This “look over there, no story here” approach has been adopted by the right since the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision. I wonder, though, why Democrats would accept it without much of a fight.
Secondly, Kansas Democrats have been on their back heels for so long about abortion that they may instinctively avoid or downplay the topic. Even a giant win like that of Aug. 2 may not be enough to change preexisting patterns.
“They always find a way to win on abortion,” says the little voice in the back of Democrats’ brains. “Maybe Kansans support limited restrictions. Maybe the amendment doesn’t tell us where they really land.”
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pushed back against this defeatist attitude during an appearance in Kansas City, Kansas, last week.
Republicans “seem to be single-mindedly focused on the culture war issues that divide us. And you’ve got to ask why,” he said. “And I think the answer is that we have reached the point where the majority is with us on issue after issue after issue.”
Buttigieg accurately describes the Schmidt campaign’s focus on anti-trans and racially charged rhetoric. Most Kansans understand and support rights for gay folks and people of color. They want to live in a just and safe society. We’ve seen just how much they support the right of women to make their own health care decisions.
To what extent? That’s the question.
Finally, partisanship matters. Recall that the constitutional amendment didn’t have an “R” or “D” next to the question. Those running the “vote no” campaign went out of their way to attract voters from across the spectrum, focusing on the potential loss of rights. It may be that this approach doesn’t translate well to individual partisan racing. Those polling behind the scenes may have a better sense than those of us watching on the outside.
I have no idea which of these reasons applies, if any. Perhaps all of them do.
Two possible outcomes
The governor knows what she’s doing. I’ve written repeatedly about her political smarts, and how Republicans throughout the state have repeatedly underestimated her. Schmidt’s campaign, with its frequent guest appearances from tangentially related out-of-state figures (coming up next: the ghost of Robert Bork), has learned that the hard way.
The Democratic camp may believe that their position has been communicated as widely as possible already. Given voluminous messaging over the summer, few would doubt which party believed in abortion rights and which believed in further restrictions.
In a CNN interview, Kelly suggested how her campaign understands the situation.
“The vote on August 2 made it very clear how that can be, that Kansans tend to elect to the governor’s office a very moderate, commonsense, thoughtful person to run their state and to make sure that the basic services are provided for them,” Kelly told the cable news channel. “What they want me as governor to do is to focus on the kitchen table issues. You know, they want me to focus on the economy. And we have done that.”
In one deft quote, the governor acknowledges the vote, emphasizes her bipartisan appeal and then moves onto the economic development message that has motivated her reelection campaign. Few would try to suture these disparate messages together, but Kelly manages the task.
As noted earlier, Davids has emphasized the issue repeatedly in her congressional race. As the sole Democrat representing Kansas at the national level, her team clearly sees it as a winning issue — especially when facing an outspoken anti-abortion Republican. Other Democrats across the state have emphasized it as well, although their races haven’t always been as high profile.
We will all watch what happens together.
If Democrats lose high-profile races in Kansas next month, onlookers will say that missed a gigantic opportunity. Kansans turned out in August to stop the constitution from being changed. They turned out to keep abortion safe and legal. Why didn’t the party do everything it could to harness that energy?
If they win, however, the restrained approach will make sense. As always, those casting the ballots make liars of us all.
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