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Democrats hope abortion can help save a Kansas swing seat

As polls show Republicans poised to recapture the House, Democrats are relying on voters still angry about abortion in Kansas and other Republican-leaning states to help limit their losses.

Sharice Davids, a Democrat running for Congress in Kansas, talks to supporters at a July 4 event in Prairie Village. (David Weigel/The Washington Post)
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PRAIRIE VILLAGE, Kan. — When Kansans decisively defeated a constitutional amendment in August that would have weakened abortion rights, the results gave Democrats hope that voters’ fury over the demise of Roe v. Wade might help them avoid a wipeout in the midterm elections.

Now, as polls show Republicans poised to recapture the House, Democrats are relying on voters still angry about the issue in Kansas and other Republican-leaning states to help limit their losses. Republicans, meanwhile, point to evidence that voters are increasingly more concerned about the economy than about abortion rights.

Rep. Sharice Davids (D-Kan.), who represents a district in the Kansas City suburbs that President Biden won narrowly in 2020, is emphasizing her support for abortion rights as she battles to retain her seat — an unthinkable strategy for a Kansas Democrat a few years ago.

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Deann Mitchell, the Johnson County Democratic Party chairwoman, recalled that she was advised not to bring up three issues when she ran for a state legislative seat in 2018: God, guns and abortion. But Democrats’ calculus has changed since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.

“This year, you’ve got to lean into the abortion discussion,” Mitchell said.

Davids is one of more than two dozen Democrats who flipped Republican-held seats in the suburbs in 2018 — victories that gave Democrats control of the House. While some of those seats are now safely Democratic because of redistricting and a shifting electorate, Republicans are battling to reclaim many others as they seek to retake the House, including Davids’s seat.

“The swing voter in this district is a classic, moderate Republican,” said former Republican Rep. Kevin Yoder, whom Davids defeated in 2018. “Their muscle memory is Republican. But, of course, they have concerns with some of the Donald Trump branding on the party.”

And they appear even more concerned about abortion than they were about Trump.

More than two-thirds of voters in Johnson County — where more than 80 percent of the district’s residents live — voted against the amendment that would have weakened abortion protections. So did narrower majorities in two of the three rural, heavily Republican counties that Kansas Republicans added to the district during redistricting to tilt it more conservative.

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Davids and her allies have hammered her Republican opponent, Amanda Adkins, in TV ads for backing the amendment. Voters recognize, “even though we beat back that amendment in August, that it’s still in the ballot on November,” Davids said in an interview on Thursday.

The race could turn on whether voters agree.

“To me, that’s not related to the congressional race,” said John Cowden, 77, a lawyer who voted against the amendment but is backing Adkins.

“At all. At all,” Tom Sterchi, Cowden’s law partner, said while standing in the crescent-shaped driveway of his home in Prairie Village, an upscale suburb, on Thursday evening at a meet-and-greet that he and his wife hosted for Adkins. “It’s irrelevant.”

Sterchi, like some others gathered in his driveway, supports some restrictions on abortion but said he didn’t want to give the state legislature unlimited power to demolish abortion rights.

“I voted against the amendment,” said John Whall, 52, who lives next door to Sterchi and works in insurance. “I felt things were fine the way they were and didn’t need to be changed. But that doesn’t mean I’m not going to vote Republican. I think there’s a lot of people in the same boat.”

Not all Republicans feel the same way.

“Sad to say, I am a registered Republican and I’m voting Democrat,” Kandy Meehan, said on Saturday morning as she was leaving the farmers market in nearby Overland Park.

Meehan typically votes Republican, and she backed Adkins in 2020. But she was appalled by the effort to roll back abortion rights — “I am 71 years old, and I’m not going back to the way it was when my mother was growing up,” she said — and feels she can no longer trust Republicans, despite her concerns about inflation and the economy.

She’s also been impressed by Davids’s outreach. “She makes the time,” Meehan said. “She listens. She communicates. She doesn’t vote the way I like on everything, but she’s got my vote.”

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Adkins, a former congressional aide and lobbyist, describes herself as “a pro-life candidate” but she has pledged to vote against federal restrictions on abortion, such as the bill introduced by Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) in September. Voters are much more likely to talk to her about inflation and the economy than abortion, she said in an interview.

“People here don’t talk to me about Lindsey O. Graham, to be clear,” Adkins said.

Davids beat Adkins by 10 points in 2020. Adkins decided to run again because she thought the political environment would be more favorable for Republicans under Biden. “I could never have imagined that things would be as bad as they are right now,” she said.

Although a New York Times-Siena College poll last month found Davids leading Adkins 55 percent to 41 percent, both campaigns believe it’s much closer. Davids called the poll “wildly optimistic.”

Davids has a casual, self-deprecating style. She showed up to an event on Friday with Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — who, with Davids, was one of the first two Native American women elected to Congress — wearing jeans and a U.S. Postal Service T-shirt under an unbuttoned denim shirt. And while she has voted with Democrats most of the time, she has avoided antagonizing business interests enough that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce last week gave her an award. (The Chamber is staying neutral in the race.)

“She’s been smart enough to walk the line and to be a relatively bipartisan, dare I say chill, Democrat,” said Stephanie Clayton, a Democratic state representative. “She’s not giving off Squad vibes, which is good.”

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Clayton’s story illustrates how the district is changing. She was one of four Republican state lawmakers in Johnson County who switched parties in 2018, mirroring its shifting politics.

Mitt Romney carried Johnson County by 17 points in 2012, but Trump barely won it in 2016. Joe Biden carried the county by eight points four years later, as college graduates trended toward Democrats. (Johnson County has a greater percentage of residents over 25 who hold bachelor’s degrees or higher than all but two dozen other counties nationwide.)

“It is the classic case of the highly educated suburban districts skewing Democratic over the last couple years — the Whole Foods districts, if you will,” said Rui Xu, a Democratic state representative who flipped a Republican-held seat in Johnson County in 2018.

But Clayton said the county’s voters are still moderates. It’s the Republican Party that’s moved away from them.

Clayton is hearing some of the same things Adkins is when she knocks on voters’ doors: concerns about inflation, pushback against Biden’s recent executive order forgiving up to $10,000 in student loan debt. But she’s been shocked by how angry voters remain about abortion rights.

“If there were moderate Republicans on the ballot, I think that Johnson County would be voting for those Republicans,” Clayton said. “But the Republican Party got rid of them.”

“They did it to themselves,” she added.