Kansas is not a place that is normally very interesting.
There’s a famous phrase from the Wizard of Oz that says, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” The implication is that Kansas is normal and run-of-the-mill in a way that Oz - or pretty much anyplace else- was not. Kansas and its neighboring states have long been derided as “flyover country” by the coastal elites.
I like Kansas. It would be hard for me to live there because of the unending flatness, but it’s a nice place. Wichita is an aviation hub and I’ve spent a lot of time there over the years. Cessna, Beechcraft, the now-defunct Learjet, and even Boeing have deep roots in Kansas.
I’m digressing already, but what I really mean to say is that Kansas is not the place where you’d expect controversy. Kansas is friendly, reliable, and bland.
Not so this week.
Deep-red Kansas, where Donald Trump won by 15 points in 2020, shocked the nation as voters rejected an amendment giving the state the authority to heavily restrict abortion by a landslide. The 60-40 margin that killed the amendment was larger than Donald Trump’s margin of victory over Joe Biden. It’s difficult to see this as anything but a catastrophic defeat for the pro-life movement.
So why did it happen?
Let’s start with the obvious. Kansas is deep red, but Kansas is also divided. The state is primarily rural so a few urban counties won by Democrats go a long way towards offsetting the votes of a bevy of thinly populated Republican counties. That may explain why Pew found that the state was split 49-49 between those who thought abortion should be legal or illegal in most cases.
[As an aside, the crosstabs on this poll are interesting. The youngest and oldest Kansans tended to favor legal abortion while middle-aged respondents tend to be more pro-life. Women also tended to be more pro-life than men.]
But even if Kansas was divided on the issue, what could have caused the double-digit shift that defeated the amendment? I have a couple of ideas.
First, let’s look at the text of the amendment. Here is what voters saw on their ballot:
Shall the following be adopted?
§ 22. Regulation of abortion. Because Kansans value both women and children, the constitution of the state of Kansas does not require government funding of abortion and does not create or secure a right to abortion. To the extent permitted by the constitution of the United States, the people, through their elected state representatives and state senators, may pass laws regarding abortion, including, but not limited to, laws that account for circumstances of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, or circumstances of necessity to save the life of the mother.
[ ] Yes
[ ] No
I wrote last week about the incomprehensible text of the Electoral Count Act. That law was intended to be read by politicians and lawyers, but the Kansas gobbledygook was aimed at voters. What would the average voter without a legal education make of such language? Might they think that “passing laws regarding abortion” would mean keeping abortion legal? I think that is at least a possibility.
When I vote, my default position on constitutional amendments is no. Unless I understand and agree with the proposed amendment, I don’t want it added to my state’s constitution. Normally, I try to educate myself about proposed amendments before an election, but how many voters take those steps for the constitutional questions that are appended to the ballot like an afterthought? Not many.
On the other hand, it looks as if the Kansas amendment was the subject of expensive ad campaigns by both sides. I’d wager that most voters were aware of the amendment and what yes and no votes meant and voted accordingly.
One possibility is that the pro-choice voters were more motivated by Dobbs than pro-life voters. I think this is a real possibility, but one that cuts against the conventional wisdom of many pundits, especially those on the right.
The argument went that abortion views were already baked into the cake. If you were pro-choice, you already voted Democrat. If you were pro-life, you already voted Republican. The Supreme Court wasn’t going to change anything except to make people vote harder.
That may not be the case.
Another interesting aspect of the election results is that the same voters who rejected the amendment overwhelmingly voted for Republicans in the primary races. There were 908,745 voters who cast ballots in the referendum for the amendment. At the same time, about 438,000 voters cast ballots in the Republican gubernatorial primary while only about 276,000 voted for Democratic gubernatorial candidates. In the Senate primary, about 255,000 Democrats voted compared to 463,000 Republicans.
This is interesting because the 534,134 people who voted against the amendment would have to include a substantial number of Republicans. At the very least, a lot of Republicans must have left the amendment question blank.
So here’s what I think. I think that the Pew poll forced people to choose between two black and white options when their opinions are often more tinged with gray. I think people made their choice because it was what they felt they were supposed to choose.
When the poll was taken, the Dobbs decision had not been handed down. It didn’t cost anything to say abortion should be totally illegal because everyone knew that the Supreme Court would never allow a ban.
Except that suddenly it did.
Between the poll and Election Day, things got real. Suddenly, it wasn’t just an abstract poll, it was a constitutional amendment that really meant something. All of a sudden, people had second thoughts.
And Republicans gave them reasons to have second thoughts. All of a sudden, it wasn’t just about birth-control abortions, it was about bans with no exceptions for medical emergencies or rape or incest. It was about attempting to ban residents from traveling to other states for abortions. It was about a 10-year-old rape victim who had to go to another state for her abortion. It was about hospitals forcing women to carry ectopic pregnancies to term.
The crux of the matter is that there is a lot of room to be pro-life/anti-abortion without going to these extremes. A multitude of polling shows that voters don’t want unrestricted abortion, but they also don’t want abortion banned. People draw the line in different places, but in Kansas, voters didn’t trust their state government to draw the line in a sensible way.
Republicans have themselves to blame for that. In many cases, the assumption seemed to be that, with Dobbs as the law of the land, the race was on to see which red state could become the most restrictive. The thinking seems to have been that if banning abortion was good, bigger and broader bans were even better. After Kansas, that seems like a bad idea. (I could have told you so. In fact, I did. The only real surprise is how quickly Republicans overreached and felt the backlash.)
Kansas underscores the fact that Dobbs did not ban abortion. It put the issue back to the states. And Kansas shows that pro-life legislators can easily go too far even in red states.
Maybe Kansas was a fluke. Maybe it was just a question of a poorly-written amendment. Maybe, but I don’t think so.
I think Kansas is a bellwether for the new reality. Republican voters want to restrict abortion but not too much.
This really is not an unreasonable position. Parties and pundits tell us that politics is an all-or-nothing, them-or-us proposition. Reality is a lot more complicated with most voters rejecting both extremes.
It’s tempting to make large assumptions about the abortion debate after Kansas, but we should remember that it is only one data point. There will be more to come. California, Kentucky, Montana, and Vermont have similar measures on their ballots in November.
Another important point to note is that while overreach on the abortion issue likely influenced Republicans to vote pro-choice or skip the question, it does not seem to have moved many to vote Democrat. There are a great many other issues to keep Republican voters from crossing all the way over, but the journey is shorter for independent voters who only vote in general elections. This movement won’t make or break every election, but it could make the difference in some close races.
The abortion battle isn’t over. And the pro-life movement is going to have to reconsider its aims and tactics. In most states, that is going to mean stopping short of a total ban.