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Kansas Tornado

Kansas Voters Just Rewrote the Script for the Midterm Elections

The overwhelming rejection in deep-red Kansas of an anti-abortion referendum suggests that there may be a hidden army of voters out there who are furious about the Dobbs decision.

Field organizer Jae Grey places signs on the podium before the pro-choice Kansas for Constitutional Freedom primary election watch party on August 2, 2022.
Dave Kaup/Getty Images
Field organizer Jae Grey places signs on the podium before the pro-choice Kansas for Constitutional Freedom primary election watch party on August 2.

Political junkies were settling in for one of those superlong nights of see-sawing election results in Kansas. The main event was not the state’s tense gubernatorial race or the prospect of anti-immigration hard-liner Kris Kobach making yet another play for electoral office. Rather, it was a ballot referendum. Kansans were the first group to vote on whether to keep or overturn abortion rights in the state since the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade.

The common refrain was that the outcome would be razor-thin and come in the latest minutes of Tuesday night or the earliest hours of Wednesday morning. But at 9:26 p.m., Dave Wasserman of The Cook Political Report—the most authoritative voice on early election results in America, whose Twitter feed is monitored by many thousands on nights like this—announced he  had “seen enough,” his signature catchphrase for an election outcome. In record-level turnout for a primary, which reached presidential election levels, Kansans overwhelmingly voted down the effort to strip the state constitution of abortion rights, which would have cleared the way for the GOP-controlled state legislature to pass strict anti-choice legislation. It was, Wasserman tweeted, a “huge victory for the pro-choice side.”

What Kansas voters also just did was to dramatically reshape the midterm elections this November. It’s hard to interpret results this overpowering in this red a state any other way.

In Kansas, pro-choice advocates and Democratic lawmakers were elated. “It’s been an all-out effort here over the past couple months. Knocking doors, phone banking, people sending emails,” said Kansas state Senator Cindy Holscher, a Democrat.

There was an effort to fight the referendum before the Dobbs decision came down, but after Roe was overturned, things intensified for pro-choice advocates in Kansas.

“I think the best way to explain it, all the sudden, people were realizing ‘OK, we’re down to that last line of defense with this vote,’” Holscher said. At that point, Holscher and other Kansans started seeing people from Missouri coming to Kansas and sharing their stories of abortion clinics closing and telling people in Kansas, “You don’t want this to happen here. You want people to have access to women’s health care.”

Holscher described the Dobbs ruling as a “lightning rod” moment for voters in the state and the region.

Voters usually don’t appreciate the outsize importance of referendums. It’s understandable why. There’s no face to the vote in the same way two candidates vying for, say, a congressional seat, would offer. But the referendum on abortion was different. The seriousness and immediacy of the Dobbs decision has been felt across the country. Over a dozen Republican-leaning states have taken steps to double down on abortion restrictions. In Kansas, the state has a Democratic governor and abortion is legal past 20 weeks of pregnancy, and it’s a state people have been traveling to from Oklahoma and other nearby states for abortion services as those states have passed restrictive laws.

The Dobbs decision and the Kansas referendum result will continue to fuel an ongoing debate within the Democratic Party. Some Democratic strategists have argued that the Dobbs ruling would activate voters in an otherwise impossible way for a party with a president whose approval numbers are underwater, in a cycle where the historical precedent is with Republicans.

“Any Dems still on the sidelines worried about the politics of abortion need to look at *KANSAS* for a reality check,” Mike Ollen, the campaign manager for Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker, tweeted.

Still, Democrats are also loath to say even that there’s a silver lining in the highest court in the land striking down a law protecting abortion across the country. The returns on Tuesday were encouraging for Democrats, though. In Johnson County, Kansas, at 10:48 p.m. E.T., the tally was about 72 percent voting “no” on the referendum and 28 percent voting “yes.” Johnson County is the most populous one in the state. By comparison, Joe Biden beat Donald Trump in Johnson County with about 53 percent of the vote to Trump’s 44 percent. That the referendum ran so much more strongly than Biden is a sign that there may well be a hidden army of voters out there who are going to make reproductive rights the issue of these midterms. As former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill said on MSNBC on Tuesday night: “This should be a big flashing signal to every Democratic candidate out there.”

“This is a straight up and down vote on reproductive health,” said Kathleen Sebelius, a former Kansas governor and former secretary of health and human services during the Obama administration. “It is a pretty clean test on how strong voters feel about reproductive health and constitutional protections.”

On the national level, Sebelius said, “I think what it should do across the country is just make people more comfortable talking about this issue as a galvanizing issue in the way we have, as Democrats, talked about health care; talked about any number of things. It’s a big difference between Republicans and Democrats. We have had record turnouts.”

Sebelius refrained from saying whether she expected talking about abortion to reverse what looks like a wave election year for Republicans. But she did stress that focusing on it and the implications of the Dobbs ruling offers a substantive contrast with anti-choice Republicans.

In my interviews with Holscher and Sebelius, they were both pleased with the outcome of the vote but more sober about the longer fight ahead on abortion rights. This was not the end. It was more the beginning of the new fight. “This amendment is going to keep coming back,” Holscher warned. “Even if the ‘no’ vote does prevail, this isn’t done.”

Still, this result was an earthquake that has rewritten, for now, the conventional wisdom about what may happen this November.