Blueprinting the Kansas Abortion-Rights Victory

Blueprinting the Kansas Abortion-Rights Victory

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It was Election Night in a hotel ballroom in Overland Park, Kansas, and Ashley All didn’t know what to think. For months, she had been a public face in the fight to protect abortion rights from a ballot initiative that would change the state constitution and open the door to severe restrictions, or even a ban. Polling had been iffy, the opposition had been relentless, and she was afraid to trust the promising early returns. Nervous, she ducked into a conference room, where Mike Gaughan, a friend and colleague, was sitting at a computer. “He pointed out the impressive numbers in some of the big counties and also great numbers in some not-so-big counties in rural areas,” All told me. It was really happening. A broad coalition with a fresh message was beating the Kansas right-to-lifers at their own game.

All, who has been working in politics for eighteen years, never dreamed that the pro-choice forces, who called themselves Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, would win by about eighteen points in an election built for them to lose. Republicans in the state legislature, determined to eliminate an obstacle to stricter abortion regulations, had carefully selected a date with historically low turnout, drafted abstruse ballot language, and campaigned by public misdirection, issuing dark warnings and refusing to tell voters what the legislature would do if the measure passed. The day before polls opened, on August 2nd, 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, voting yes would remove the right to abortion from the state constitution, granting significant power to anti-abortion Republicans in the legislature. The Washington Post traced the message to a Republican political-action committee.

Despite the noise, more than five hundred and forty thousand voters cast ballots to defend existing abortion rights, in a state that Donald Trump—who appointed three anti-abortion Justices to the Supreme Court—carried by nearly fifteen points less than two years ago. More voters showed up than in any primary in state history. “I’m still in shock,” All e-mailed, eighteen hours after the Associated Press called the election. The pro-choice campaign had focussed not strictly on abortion access but on the idea that decisions about pregnancy and women’s health should not be made by politicians, nor should women’s rights be taken away. “We actually did talk about abortion a lot, but we talked about it in a different way,” All told me. “We talked about a much broader set of values that a lot more Kansans shared.”

What started small, with a core group of well-known advocates, including Planned Parenthood, the A.C.L.U., and a Wichita abortion clinic called Trust Women, grew to a coalition of roughly forty organizations that spent more than six million dollars and knocked on tens of thousands of doors. Partners did not agree on everything—far from it, All said—but they framed the effort as nonpartisan. The campaign reached beyond Democrats to Republican moderates, especially women, who had been pivotal in the Democratic takeover of the U.S. House, in 2018. Organizers talked with rural conservatives, too, taking time to door-knock in counties that, in the past, might’ve been ignored. “If we want to build back 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 have different opinions than you do.”

The vote-no forces won at least eighteen counties on Tuesday. In 2020, Joe Biden won five. All told me about a woman who called from Pittsburg—a college town in rural Crawford County—and offered to volunteer. The county went for Barack Obama in 2008, but Trump walloped Hillary Clinton and Biden there in the past two Presidential elections. The volunteer knocked on sixteen hundred doors, All said; the ballot initiative carried the county by nearly eleven points. In Seward County, situated in a conservative, western pocket of the state, the yes side is winning by just four-tenths of a per cent. Kansans for Constitutional Freedom received donations from eighty of the state’s hundred and five counties. The lesson, All said, is to build partnerships with local organizers who know the landscape and can be trusted messengers to their neighbors and friends.

Strategists are already studying the Kansas playbook, with an eye toward the November midterms. All and her colleagues have spoken with organizers in Kentucky, where voters are considering a similar constitutional amendment that would open the door to harsher abortion restrictions. Meanwhile, Pete Giangreco, a Chicago-based Democratic strategist who advises candidates across the country, told me that a client e-mailed him the links to television advertisements crafted by Kansans for Constitutional Freedom. In one, a physician says the amendment “ties the hands of doctors.” In another, a retired Protestant minister says it “replaces religious freedom with government control.” In a third, a narrator warns of a “slippery slope that could put more of your individual and personal rights at risk.” Giangreco said, “These concepts will find their way into Democratic messaging at all levels.”

Amanda Litman, the co-founder of Run for Something, which is supporting more than five hundred progressive candidates this year, sees abortion rights as a particularly potent issue. The outcome in Kansas, she told me, “reinforces the advice we’ve been giving candidates since Day One, which is to not be afraid to stand up for your values. The way you talk about abortion in a place like Kansas is going to be a little different than the way you talk about it in a place like New York or California, but it’s really important to talk about it, especially now.”

On Tuesday night, while the winners were celebrating in Overland Park, Susan Humphries was three hours away, in Wichita, with friends and fellow Republican legislators, feeling glum about referendum results. A few days earlier, Humphries, a state representative who opposes abortion, had texted me after a canvassing session: “We are feeling optimistic. I had a lot of good interaction at the doors today.” At the watch party, seeing results that were “not even close to close,” as she put it, the mood was sour, and the process of figuring out what went wrong was just beginning. When we spoke later, she denounced the “abortion industry with the help of the corporate media” and what she called a “campaign of confusion” by the vote-no side. She said that some fierce opponents of abortion voted against the amendment because they didn’t think it went far enough, a situation she found “really hard to swallow.” But, she added, the anti-abortion movement, fifty years in the making, is a marathon. “We’re going to regroup,” she said.

That was the message, too, from Value Them Both, the coalition of abortion foes that included leaders of the local Catholic Church, notably Kansas City Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, the former chairman of the Committee on Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Catholic organizations, led by the archdiocese, donated more than four million dollars to the ballot effort. Value Them Both attributed the election loss to “millions of out-of-state dollars” and “an onslaught of misinformation of radical left organizations.” On two trips to Kansas during the campaign, I spoke with many women who were neither misinformed nor relying on “radical left” messages. They simply wanted to guarantee access to abortion—for themselves, their relatives, their friends, or persons unknown.

Ashley All and her allies are already warning that the fight is far from over. In three decades since abortion opponents staged the Summer of Mercy in Wichita, lying down in front of cars to prevent women from reaching clinics, limits on abortion have multiplied, and Republicans now hold super-majorities in the state legislature, making it easier to overcome vetoes by the Democratic governor, Laura Kelly, who is seeking reëlection this year. “I do not expect it to end here,” All told reporters on Wednesday. “I fully believe that they will come back in January, if not before, and attempt different laws and restrictions.”

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