In what was 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 stripping abortion rights 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 on the GOP.
“It is time to reevaluate the conventional wisdom about the midterms after this vote in Kansas,” wrote Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) on Twitter. “People are mad as hell at having their rights taken away.”
Voter turnout was high in Kansas, a conservative state — a major surge during a midsummer vote and in the eyes of many Democrats the first major data point that abortion could prove to be a significant motivator in the fall.
President Biden planned to speak Tuesday afternoon about “securing access to reproductive and other health care services,” according to the White House. In a Tuesday night statement, Biden sought to draw attention to the vote, saying, “the American people must continue to use their voices to protect the right to women’s health care, including abortion.”
Weighed down by Biden’s low approval ratings and rising prices, Democrats have been eyeing the fall campaign with trepidation, eager to tap into more favorable issues that motivate voters to vote for their candidates. After the Supreme Court ruling, many Democrats started re-orienting their campaigns more heavily in abortion, framing their candidacies as bulwarks against GOP efforts to pare down reproductive rights.
But until Tuesday, there were no indicators that such a strategy might be successful as concrete as what has unfolded in Kansas.
With constitutional right to abortion established in Roe no longer applicable, abortion rights activists are turning to ballot measures, state races and legislative battles to protect and expand abortion rights on an ad hoc basis.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, who are largely aligned with the party, are sounding increasingly hopeful notes the two efforts can dovetail.
Democrats are also trying to boost turnout and generate energy for House and Senate races, where many candidates are also touting efforts they would take at the federal level, including trying to codify abortion rights into law through a congressional vote.
Still, it remains to be seen if Democrats can effectively connect abortion as an issue to the choice voters make between candidates in the fall. Most Republicans have sought to campaign on inflation and the economy, steering away from abortion when possible. They were much quieter on the issue than their Democratic counterparts in the aftermath on Tuesday’s vote in Kansas.
At least four other states will have abortion measures on the ballot this November, which party strategists say could drive up Democratic turnout in those places, on top of deciding abortion law in those states. 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.
“The extraordinary turnout in Kansas today is a bellwether for what’s to come this November in the midterm elections and it’s crucial that we keep this momentum,” said Cecile Richards, the former president of Planned Parenthood, in a statement.
Some Republicans downplayed the impact of the Kansas results — particularly for Senate races. They noted that there are not currently any abortion referenda on the ballot in places that will have targeted Senate races. But several House races in California and Michigan, where abortion will be on the ballot, are already expected to be close.
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 is hoping to be reelected. Democrats also hope to flip the state Senate from red to blue and win key battleground U.S. House races.
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.
“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.”
Abortion rights advocates in Michigan cheered the Kansas vote and suggested the win may foreshadow success on the Michigan ballot in November.
“This is a HUGE win for Kansans and a great sign that direct democracy is the *best* way for voters to safeguard our reproductive freedom,” Reproductive Freedom for All, a collective of abortion access activists who put forward the Michigan ballot measure, said in a series of tweets late Tuesday. The group celebrated the result in Kansas for “setting the stage for more success from our repro measures at the ballot box this November.”
Meanwhile, Kentucky and Montana voters will 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 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.”