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Opinion After Kansas, Democrats see an opportunity

A "Vote No" sign on display outside a polling station in Olathe, Kansas, on Aug. 1. (Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

Democrats haven’t carried Kansas in a presidential election since 1964 or won a U.S. Senate race since 1932. So, it is nothing short of a revelation that a ballot initiative to remove reproductive rights from the Kansas Constitution failed by 18 points on Tuesday.

Voters in Alabama, Louisiana, Tennessee and West Virginia enacted similar amendments to their constitutions over the past decade, but that was before the Supreme Court kicked a hornet’s nest and rescinded the federal right to abortion.

Around 900,000 Kansans voted on Tuesday’s ballot question, nearly twice the number who voted in the 2018 primary. In-person early voting was about 250 percent higher, and more than twice as many people voted by mail, as four years ago. Triple-digit heat indexes didn’t deter people from waiting in line at polling places on Election Day. Altogether, about half of eligible voters participated, with an estimated 96 percent of the ballots counted. Women accounted for 70 percent of the surge of new voter registration in Kansas since June 24, evidence that the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade shifted the dynamics of the contest.

The suburbs spoke: More than 166,000 of the 534,000 no votes have come from Johnson County, the state’s most populous and which includes affluent suburbs of the Kansas City metro area. Nearly 7 in 10 Johnson County voters opposed the amendment. A sizable number of Republican voters favor reproductive rights, and they crossed over to oppose the amendment in Kansas. These are warning signs for GOP strategists who think the Supreme Court decision will have minimal impact on elections this fall.

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Also important to Tuesday’s outcome was that rural counties favored the amendment but did so by much smaller margins than they went for Donald Trump. In Russell County, where former senator Robert J. Dole was born and raised, only 55 percent backed the amendment — compared with 81 percent who voted for Trump in 2020.

The outcome is even more astonishing considering how utterly the deck was stacked in the ballot measure’s favor. Republican legislators used supermajorities in the Kansas statehouse to schedule the vote for Aug. 2 on the expectation that independents — who outnumber registered Democrats — would be less likely to cast ballots.

And because the amendment was considered to be nonpartisan, churches were permitted to engage directly in campaigning. The Catholic Church went all-in: The archdiocese in Kansas City, Kan., donated at least $2.45 million, and Wichita’s chipped in at least $550,000 to the campaign behind it. That doesn’t count any homilies urging parishioners to vote.

Kansas is just the first test of public opposition to outright bans on abortion. A ballot measure in Kentucky, similar to Kansas’s, would amend the constitution there to say there’s no such right. A referendum in Montana would require care for “infants born alive after an abortion.” And Alaska will vote on whether to hold a constitutional convention, which would allow social conservatives to remove a privacy clause that the state Supreme Court has interpreted to protect abortion access.

Most significant is Michigan, where organizers recently submitted 754,000 signatures to put a measure on the ballot that would strike down a 1931 abortion ban which might otherwise soon go into effect. Similar measures preserving choice are on the ballot in California and Vermont. These referendums could significantly juice turnout for Democrats in November.

Referendum politics can scramble election cycles. During George W. Bush’s presidency, Republicans boosted turnout in swing states by placing measures opposing same-sex marriage on the ballot. That brought cultural conservatives out to vote and worked to the GOP’s advantage for a time. More recently, Democrats in Western states have offered measures legalizing marijuana in various ways to lure younger voters to the polls, where they tend to vote Democratic in other contests.

But in most places, abortion will not literally be on the ballot this fall. Democrats need to figure out how to frame races between politicians as referendums on women’s rights. As intuitive as it might seem to the candidates themselves, the linkage isn’t always obvious to voters.

And where it is on the ballot, outcomes might be hard to predict. Latinos, already drifting toward the GOP, tend to be more pro-life than the rest of the Democratic coalition. They could prove decisive in Sun Belt states such as Arizona, Nevada and Colorado.

Progressive forces winning a statewide contest in an August primary does not guarantee a national counterrevolution. But it is an opportunity. Tuesday’s results in Kansas suggest Democrats can press their advantage in a very difficult cycle. And the outcome should give pause to overzealous GOP legislators who are pursuing abortion bans without exceptions for rape, incest or the health of the mother.