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How abortion rights organizers won in Kansas: Horse parades and canvassing

Gail Rowland carries signs at the Johnson County Democratic Party headquarters on July 18 to encourage voters to vote “no” against a state constitutional amendment that would further restrict abortion access in Kansas. (Christopher Smith for The Washington Post)
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OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — When abortion rights organizer Jae Gray sent canvassers out into the Kansas City suburbs for the state’s upcoming referendum, they armed them with talking points aimed at all voters — not just liberals.

“We definitely used messaging strategies that would work regardless of party affiliation,” said Gray, a field organizer for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom. “We believe every Kansan has a right to make personal health-care decisions without government overreach — that’s obviously a conservative-friendly talking point. We were not just talking to Democrats.”

The effort paid off. On Tuesday, Kansas voters decisively defeated a ballot measure that would have set aside abortion protections in the state’s constitution, paving the way for additional restrictions or even a total ban. That victory was fueled by an opposition coalition that mobilized a large swath of the state’s electorate — including Republican and independent voters — to turn out in historic numbers.

The stunning defeat of a well-organized antiabortion movement in a conservative state surprised many observers and even the organizers themselves, who said they capitalized on voter anger after the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade in June. Voter registrations in Kansas spiked dramatically in the hours after the decision was announced, according to KSVotes.org, an online voter registration service.

Nearly 60 percent of voters ultimately rejected the amendment, with more than 900,000 turning out to the polls — nearly twice as many as the 473,438 who turned out in the 2018 primary election.

“Kansas turned out in historic numbers ... because we found common ground among diverse voting blocks and mobilized Kansans across the political spectrum to vote no,” Rachel Sweet, the campaign manager for Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, said at a news conference Wednesday.

Sweet said she hopes the campaign’s victory will be ballast for abortion rights groups in other states with ballot initiatives in coming months. In California, Vermont and Michigan, voters are being asked whether to enshrine abortion protections in their constitutions. In Kentucky, voters are considering whether protections should be rolled back.

Sweet said that organizers mobilized Republican and nonaffiliated voters through partnerships with groups like Mainstream Coalition, a nonpartisan advocacy group based in Johnson County, Kan. This populous Kansas City suburb turned blue for the first time in a century in the 2020 presidential contest. About 1 in 5 Republican primary voters turned out in favor of abortion rights, a Washington Post analysis shows.

Kansans voted to protect abortion rights during their Aug. 2 primary. Those results could be a sign of what’s to come for more states in the 2022 midterms. (Video: Blair Guild/The Washington Post)

“It’s a referendum on the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade and as a society we don’t want to go backwards with our laws,” said Mandi Hunter, 46, a Republican attorney from Johnson County who voted “no” to the amendment. “People don’t want the government in charge or ruling on their personal lives.”

Hunter said she was skeptical of Republican state legislators, who argued the amendment would not necessarily lead to a total ban, even though some had previously stated that they were ready with legislation proposing an all-out ban on the procedure for their legislative session in January.

Kansans for Constitutional Freedom also reached out to voters in more rural and conservative areas of the state, Sweet said. An abortion rights rally in western Kansas earlier this week featured horses, a Dolly Parton playlist and T-shirts with a pink uterus in a cowboy hat. The slogan? “Vote Neigh.”

Alejandro Rangel-Lopez, 21, a Dodge City resident and the event’s organizer, said that the Vote Neigh campaign was designed as a fun way to reach younger, rural voters. They did well, he said. “No” voters won the state’s populated urban counties, but also some smaller rural counties such as Saline and Geary as well, results showed.

“These victories happen because young people are motivated and tired of seeing the same thing over and over again,” he said. “When you give us a shot at shaping what our campaigns look like and have fun and move away from traditional rhetoric — we’ll deliver results.”

University of Kansas law professor Stephen McAllister, a former clerk for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas who served as the U.S. attorney for Kansas after being appointed by President Donald Trump, said that antiabortion activism in Kansas began in earnest in the 1991, during the Summer of Mercy protests in Wichita. At the same time that protesters were lying in the streets, chaining themselves to fences and getting arrested in front of abortion clinics, the movement was also recruiting Republican candidates, he said.

In the coming years, antiabortion advocates won several victories in the Kansas state legislature, including a 24-hour waiting period, parental notification law and restrictions on late-term abortions.

“That was the birth of an interest group that captured the Republican Party in a way that never reflected the view of a majority of Kansans,” McAllister said. “Now that the populism of Kansas has been given a chance to express itself, it made clear that the will of the people has been captured by a single-minded interest of the Republican legislature. There is a disconnect between the majority will and party position.”

In 2019, the state Supreme Court ruled that the Kansas Constitution protects the “right of personal autonomy” that “allows a woman to make her own decisions regarding her body, health, family formation and family life — decisions that can include whether to continue a pregnancy.” Abortion in Kansas is currently legal in the first 22 weeks of pregnancy.

Republicans in the state legislature originally attempted to put a constitutional amendment that would void these protections on the ballot in 2020. When they were finally successful last year, the abortion rights organizers were prepared, according to Cassie Woolworth, 57, the president of the Johnson County Democratic Women South chapter. Her group began warning voters of the coming ballot initiative even during the election cycle last year.

In the year-long campaign over the amendment, both sides have accused each other of misinformation — with the “Vote No” Kansans for Constitutional Freedom alleging in street signs and messaging that the amendment would lead to a total ban on abortion (state legislators would have had to pass a law banning abortion). The “Vote Yes” Value Them Both coalition alleged that the laws they worked to pass have been nullified by the 2019 Supreme Court ruling (also not technically true, according to McAllister.)

A misleading text sent by a political action committee led by Tim Huelskamp, a former Republican congressman for Kansas, further inflamed the race.

Both sides spent roughly the same amount on airwaves and social media for a combined total of $11 million, according to reports filed with the Kansas Governmental Ethics Commission. The Catholic Church has spent nearly $2.5 million in support of Value Them Both, while Planned Parenthood spent $1.4 million opposing it.

Kansans for Constitutional Freedom were also backed by the Sixteen Thirty Fund, its largest donor, which donated $1.38 million. Sixteen Thirty has emerged in recent years as a powerful hub for left-leaning causes. Organized as a nonprofit, meaning it is exempt from disclosing its donors, the fund spent $410 million across the country in 2020, the last year for which a tax filing is available.

The fund, administered by the for-profit consulting firm Arabella Advisers, says it advocates for causes such as voter access, pay equity, health care and gun control. In 2020, it was one of the top donors to outside spending groups trained on defeating Donald Trump. Its spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment.

Even as abortion rights forces popped their champagne at the victory party Tuesday, the Value Them Both coalition called the outcome a “temporary setback” in a statement on Twitter, signaling that the battle was far from over. The group blamed an “onslaught of misinformation from the radical left organizations that spent millions of out-of-state dollars to spread lies about the Value Them Both Amendment.”

“Our dedicated fight to value women and babies is far from over,” the group’s statement said, promising “we will be back.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Johnson County, Kan., supported a Democratic presidential candidate for the first time in 2020. In the 1916 presidential race, a majority of Johnson County voters supported Democrat Woodrow Wilson. This story has been corrected.

Scott Clement and Isaac Stanley-Becker contributed to this report.

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