How the 2022 midterms strategy could change after the Kansas abortion vote

Barbara Sprunt | August 4, 2022
Alie Utley and Joe Moyer react to their county voting against the proposed constitutional amendment during the Kansas for Constitutional Freedom primary election watch party in Overland Park, Kan., on Tuesday.
Alie Utley and Joe Moyer react to their county voting against the proposed constitutional amendment during the Kansas for Constitutional Freedom primary election watch party in Overland Park, Kan., on Tuesday. Dave Kaup | AFP via Getty Images

On Tuesday, voters in Kansas overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative that would have opened the door to significant abortion restrictions in the state.

It was the first political test of voters’ appetite for state abortion restrictions since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade in June.

The decisive vote against curbing abortion rights in a deeply conservative state has political strategists in both parties recalibrating their views on the upcoming midterm elections.

“Well, [Tuesday] night was a slap in the face to me, personally, as a consultant who’s done this for 32 years,” said Chuck Rocha, a senior Democratic operative. “When this decision came down from the Supreme Court, I was one of those folks who said that if this is your issue, you’ve already picked a team — you’re already team red or you’re team blue, and this will have some effect, but not a major effect.”

But after seeing the staggering number of voters who turned out in a state that former President Donald Trump won by 15 points in 2020, Rocha thinks abortion rights will end up playing a larger role in the November elections.

“This proved there is energy here around this issue, and I think [Tuesday] was historic,” he said.

Republican strategist John Feehery said the Kansas outcome should be a “wake-up call” for Republicans.

“Republicans in the pro-life movement need to get their act together on the abortion issue post-Dobbs, because they’re all over the place,” he said. “The problem is that you have people wanting to be the most conservative candidate in the primary, but they take positions that are not that popular with most voters. So they need to tread carefully, they need to calibrate, they need to understand where most voters are — and most voters are in the middle. They are not on either extreme.”

He said GOP candidates need to be explicit that their views on abortion have “nothing to do with same-sex marriage, and certainly not contraception,” two issues that Democrats have forced votes on in Congress to get their Republican colleagues on record for supporting or opposing, amid concerns that the Supreme Court’s ruling could jeopardize other rights. Last month, 195 House Republicans voted against legislation aimed at protecting access to birth control.

Feehery said although Tuesday’s outcome boosts enthusiasm among Democrats nationally, the “saving grace” for Republicans is that abortion is not the No. 1 issue facing the country.

“Inflation and the economy are much more important for most voters, and I think that that’s what they’ll vote on,” Feehery said.

According to a recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, inflation is the No. 1 issue for Republicans and independent voters as they think about the midterm elections; registered Democrats rank abortion first.

Voter registration among women in Kansas post-Dobbs was huge

Although the result of Kansas’ vote came as a surprise, it was the scope of voters who turned out in droves that stunned Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm.

“When you you analyze data, you tend to get excited when you see movements from the norm, maybe five or six points — that’s telling you that something meaningful happened, something outside of the norm. And in this case, we saw something outside of the norm by 20 points,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything to that extent in terms of that intensity.”

Over 900,000 people in Kansas cast a ballot on Tuesday, a level of participation that blows past primary turnouts out of the water and approaches the high turnout rate in the state in the 2018 general election.

Republicans have a substantial voter registration advantage in the state.

“[The results] prove that Democrats can probably peel off some of these moderate Republican women, who take this issue very personally,” Rocha said.

Bonier analyzed voter registration numbers before and after June 24, when the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to abortion.

“What we saw there was remarkable,” Bonier said. “Seventy percent of the new voter registrants in Kansas were women. If you look at the same period of time in the previous election cycle, new voter registrants were almost exactly evenly split between men and women.”

Bonier also points to the number of young people who registered to vote in the wake of the Supreme Court decision — over half are under the age of 25.

“In the 2018 general election, much of that so-called blue wave was driven by just a massive, unprecedented increase in youth turnout. So the question we’re asking ourselves at this point is, is what we saw in Kansas this week the first indicator of something similar happening in in 2022, and will we see a huge increase in women participating in this election that could produce surprising results?”

Rocha points out that demographic shifts will play a role in November as well.

“For the first time in American political history, voters of color will have a bigger impact on who controls Congress. This particular issue of choice over-indexes and impacts people with less income, mainly young women of color,” he said, pointing to key Senate races in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.

“If [abortion] is a motivational factor, and that was proven on Tuesday, to motivate young Black and brown voters, especially young Black and brown women, it could be the sleeping giant of this year, and will be a story that will be told for a long time.”

A Democratic pollster sees what happened in Kansas as ‘a sea change’

This year, a record number of abortion measures are on state ballots and the issue will be a factor in other races in November up and down the ballot, including for governor, Senate, House, state supreme courts and state attorneys general.

Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster, said in the wake of the Supreme Court decision, anti-abortion rights voters “think they’ve won, so they’re not as energized.”

“We’re seeing the pro-choice voters and women in particular, younger women and baby boomer women who remember what it was like before Roe v. Wade, getting very energized and being 10 to 20 points more energized than the anti-choice voters,” she said. “That is a sea change.”

She’s heard in focus groups from voters who are concerned about a “slippery slope” — the idea that curtailing abortion rights could lead to other rights being rolled back.

“They worry about marriage equality, they worry about voting rights protections, they worry about birth control, they worry about abortion,” Lake described. “Voters in our focus groups ask, ‘What’s next?'”

Mallory Carroll, vice president of communications of Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, said the results from Kansas are a “devastating loss” to the anti-abortion rights movement.

“The question now is, what lesson will pro-life Republicans learn from this disappointing loss?”

She said Republican candidates should be “very explicit” about their stances, including whether there are instances in which they think abortion should be allowed, and not shy away from tackling the topic head on.

“Republicans need to quit what they’re doing right now, which in many cases is to pretend like this issue [of abortion] doesn’t exist and focus instead on inflation, gas prices, crime, etc., to carry them over the finish line,” she said. “There’s no doubt those are very salient issues that voters care about. But if pro-life Republicans fail to define themselves and what their policy positions are, then pro-abortion Democrats will do that for them.”

The White House responds — and credits ‘power of American women’

Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas listens as President Biden delivers remarks virtually during the first meeting of the interagency Task Force on Reproductive Healthcare Access on Wednesday.
Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas listens as President Biden delivers remarks virtually during the first meeting of the interagency Task Force on Reproductive Healthcare Access on Wednesday. Mandel Ngan | AFP via Getty Images

“The court practically dared women in this country to go to the ballot box and restore the right to choose,” President Biden said Wednesday as he met virtually with White House’s Task Force on Reproductive Health Care.

Republicans and the high court “don’t have a clue about the power of American women,” Biden said. “Last night in Kansas, they found out.”

During that meeting, Biden signed his second executive order aimed at preserving abortion access. The order directs the Department of Health and Human Services to “consider action to advance access to reproductive healthcare services, including through Medicaid for patients who travel out of state for reproductive healthcare services.”

The order directs HHS to “consider all appropriate actions” to ensure health care providers comply with non-discrimination laws in order for people to receive “medically necessary care without delay,” noting that providers may be “confused or unsure of their obligations in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision.”

But Biden himself has acknowledged the limits of what he and his administration can do to fully protect abortion rights. He’s repeatedly issued the message of “vote, vote, vote” in November to boost Democrats’ numbers in Congress in order to codify abortion rights into federal law and bring the legislation to his desk for signature.

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Transcript :

ALINA SELYUKH, HOST:

Republican state lawmakers in Indiana approved a near-total ban on abortion Friday night. A more unexpected result came earlier last week when voters in Kansas overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative that would have opened the door to significant abortion restrictions in the state. It was the first political test of voters’ appetite for state abortion restrictions since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade. The outcome has political strategists in both parties eyeing the upcoming midterm elections in new ways, as NPR’s Barbara Sprunt reports.

BARBARA SPRUNT, BYLINE: Kansas voters soundly rejecting a path that could curb abortion rights in the state seemed to surprise everyone.

CHUCK ROCHA: Well, last night was a slap in the face to me personally as a consultant who’s done this for 32 years.

SPRUNT: That’s Chuck Rocha, a senior Democratic operative. We spoke the day after the vote. He said he had thought abortion rights might have some effect in elections but not a major one. But after seeing the staggering number of voters who turned out in a state that former President Trump won by 15 points in 2020, he’s changed his mind.

ROCHA: It proved that you could probably peel off some of these moderate Republican women who take this very personal, as well.

SPRUNT: John Feehery, a Republican strategist, says Republican candidates need to recalibrate.

JOHN FEEHERY: I think Republicans have to view this as a wake-up call.

SPRUNT: He says he still thinks voters will put the economy and inflation concerns first in the midterm elections. But he thinks Republican candidates are being characterized by some of the most extreme positions on abortion.

FEEHERY: The problem is that when you have people wanting to be the most conservative candidate in a primary, that they’ll take positions that are not that popular with most voters. Most voters are in the middle. They’re not on either extreme.

SPRUNT: He’s also worried that some candidates aren’t being clear that their views on limiting abortion don’t extend to rolling back rights to contraception and same-sex marriage, fears that could further fire up voters on the left and in the middle. In Kansas on Tuesday, over 900,000 people cast a ballot, a level of participation that blows past primary turnouts out of the water.

TOM BONIER: I’ve never seen anything to that extent in terms of that sort of intensity.

SPRUNT: That’s Tom Bonier, CEO of TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm. He looked at voter registration numbers in Kansas before and after June 24, when the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion.

BONIER: Seventy percent of the new voter registrants were women. If you look at the period two years before in the previous election cycle, new voter registrants were almost exactly evenly split between men and women.

SPRUNT: Another big change – the number of young people who registered to vote. Over half were under the age of 25. Youth turnout drove much of the blue wave in 2018.

BONIER: Is what we saw in Kansas the first indicator of something similar happening in 2022? And will we see a huge increase in women participating in this election that could produce a surprising result?

SPRUNT: There’s a record number of abortion measures on state ballots this year, which could help drive turnout for Democrats. What can Republicans do? Mallory Carroll, vice president of communications for Susan B. Anthony Pro-Life America, says GOP candidates need to be upfront about their stances on abortion, including the circumstances in which they think it should be allowed.

MALLORY CARROLL: Candidates can and should be very explicit about the exceptions that they support and instances when they support legislation that allows for abortions.

SPRUNT: She also says Republicans can’t shy away from talking about abortion and only focus on inflation, gas prices and crime.

CARROLL: There’s no doubt those are very salient issues that voters care about. But if pro-life Republicans fail to define themselves and what their policy positions are, then pro-abortion Democrats will do that for them.

SPRUNT: And Election Day is just three months from tomorrow.

Barbara Sprunt, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.