It’s election night in the Ballroom of the Overland Park, Kansas, hotel, and Ashley Orr doesn’t know what to think. For months, she has fought to protect abortion rights from a ballot initiative that would change the state constitution and open the door to severe restrictions or even bans. Polls have been shaky, the opposition has been ruthless, and she can’t believe the promising early returns. Nervous, she ducked into a conference room where her friend and colleague Mike Gowan was sitting at the computer. “He pointed to some staggering numbers in some large counties, as well as a lot of numbers in some not-so-big counties in rural areas,” Orr told me. It really happened. A broad coalition with new information is beating Kansas’ Right to Life at a game of their own.
All had been in politics for 18 years, and they never dreamed that pro-choice forces claiming Kansas’ constitutional freedom would win an election that would cost them by about 18 percentage points.Determined to remove barriers to stricter abortion regulations, Republicans in the state legislature have handpicked a date with historically low turnout, crafted esoteric ballot language, and were led by misleading the public, issued a dark warning and refused to tell voters what the legislature would do if the measure passed. The day before voting began, on Aug. 2, voters in Kansas received an anonymous text message instructing them to “give women a choice” by voting “yes to protect women’s health.” In fact, a yes vote would remove abortion rights from the state constitution, giving anti-abortion Republicans significant power in the legislature.Washington postal track message Submitted to the Republican Political Action Committee.
Despite the noise, more than 540,000 voters voted to defend existing abortion rights, with Donald Trump, who appointed three pro-abortion justices to the Supreme Court less than two years ago, by nearly 15 percentage points. The advantage gained the state’s vote. More voters turned up than any primaries in state history. “I’m still in shock,” everyone emailed 18 hours after The Associated Press announced the election. The pro-choice movement is not strictly concerned with access to abortion, but with the idea that decisions about pregnancy and women’s health should not be made by politicians, nor should women be disenfranchised. “We actually do talk about abortion a lot, but we talk about it in a different way,” Orr told me. “We discussed broader values shared by more Kansasians.”
What started as a core group of high-profile advocates including Planned Parenthood, the ACLU, and a Wichita abortion clinic called Trust Women has grown into a coalition of about 40 organizations, spending more than $6 million , and hit dozens of thousands of doors. The partners haven’t agreed on everything — far from that, Orr said — but they see the effort as nonpartisan. The movement has moved beyond Democrats to reach moderates in the Republican Party, especially women, who played a key role in the Democratic takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives in 2018. Organizers also spoke to rural conservatives, spending time knocking on doors in past counties that may have been overlooked. “If we want to re-establish access to abortion in places like the Midwest and the South, then we have to do it differently,” All told me. “You have to be willing to communicate with people who disagree with you.”
Opposition votes won at least 18 counties on Tuesday. Joe Biden has five wins in 2020. Everyone told me that a woman called from Pittsburgh (a college town in rural Crawford County) offered to volunteer. The county supported Barack Obama in 2008, but Trump has defeated Hillary Clinton and Biden in the past two presidential elections. Volunteers knocked on 1,600 doors, all said; the ballot initiative put the county ahead by nearly 11 points. In Seward County, in a conservative western part of the state, the favorable side won by just a four-tenths margin. Constitutional Liberty Kansas received donations from 80 of the state’s 105 counties. The lesson, Orr said, is to partner with local organizers who understand the situation and can be a messenger for neighbors and friends.
Strategists are already working on Kansas’ playbook, with an eye toward November’s midterm elections. All and her colleagues have spoken to organizers in Kentucky, where voters are considering a similar constitutional amendment that would open the door to stricter abortion restrictions. Meanwhile, Chicago Democratic strategist Pete Giangreco, who advises candidates across the country, told me that a client emailed him a link to a Kansas TV ad for constitutional freedom. One doctor said the amendment “tethers doctors’ hands and feet”. In another article, a retired Protestant pastor said it “replaces religious freedom with government control.” In the third article, the narrator warns that “slippery slopes could put more of your personal and personal rights at risk”. “These concepts will enter the Democratic message at every level,” Giangreco said.
Amanda Litman, co-founder of Run for Something, which supports more than 500 progressive candidates this year, sees abortion rights as a particularly important issue. The Kansas results, she told me, “reinforce the advice we’ve given candidates from day one to not be afraid to uphold your values. Talking about abortion in a place like Kansas is the same as talking about abortion in a place like New York or California. Talking about abortion is going to be a little different, but it’s really important to talk about it, especially now.”
Susan Humphreys was three hours away from Wichita with friends and Republican lawmakers frustrated by the referendum result on Tuesday night as the winner celebrated in Overland Park. A few days ago, state Rep. Humphreys, who opposes abortion, texted me after a canvassing session and said, “We’re feeling optimistic. I had a lot of good interactions at the door today.” On the sidelines, in her words , was in a bad mood to see the “not even close to the end” results, and the process of figuring out what went wrong has only just begun. When we spoke later, she denounced the “abortion industry with the help of the corporate media” and what she called a “chaotic movement” on the side of the vote. She said some fierce opponents of abortion voted against the amendment because they felt it didn’t go far enough, a situation she found “really hard to accept.” But, she added, the 50-year-old anti-abortion movement is a marathon. “We’re going to regroup,” she said.
That’s also a message from Value Them Both, a coalition of abortion enemies that includes leaders of the local Catholic Church, notably Kansas City Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, the former chair of the American Conference on Anti-Abortion Activities Committee on Catholic Bishops. Catholic organizations led by the archdiocese donated more than $4 million to the vote. They both attribute election losses to “millions of dollars in out-of-state funding” and “the onslaught of misinformation from radical left groups.” On two trips to Kansas during the campaign, I spoke to many women who were neither misguided nor relied on “radical left” messages. They just want to guarantee an abortion for themselves, their relatives, their friends or unknown people.
Ashley All and her allies have warned the fight is far from over. In the 30 years since abortion opponents staged a “Summer of Mercy” in Wichita, lying in front of their cars to prevent women from going to clinics, restrictions on abortion have multiplied, and Republicans now have an absolute majority in the state legislature seats, making it easier to overcome Democratic Gov. Laura Kelly seeking re-election this year. “I don’t think it’s going to end here,” Orr told reporters on Wednesday. “I have every confidence that they will come back by January or even earlier and try different laws and restrictions.”