How abortion rights supporters are winning in conservative Kansas

Proponents of abortion rights won a huge and surprising victory in one of the most conservative states in the country on Tuesday, with voters in Kansas strongly opposing a constitutional amendment that would have state lawmakers ban or significantly Limit abortion.

Results are still being released over time, but after more than 90 percent of the votes were counted, pro-abortion rights led by about 18 percentage points, in a state that voted for President Donald J. Trump. That’s a staggering gap in 2020 of just under 15 percentage points.

Let’s see what happened.

Heading into Election Day, many observers believe the outcome of the referendum will depend on increasingly democratic areas like suburban Kansas City — that is, whether enough voters show up to compensate for the very conservative leanings of the rest of the state. But even in the hottest places, abortion opponents have performed surprisingly poorly.

Consider far west Kansas, a rural area on the Colorado border that voted overwhelmingly for Republicans. Hamilton County voted 81% of the vote for Trump in 2020, but on Tuesday, less than 56% took an anti-abortion stance (about 90% of the votes counted). In Greeley County, more than 85 percent voted for Mr. Trump, and only about 60 percent took an anti-abortion stance.

We could talk about cities all day, but Kansas is called a Rural Republican state for a reason: Rural Republican areas cover enough states that they can, and almost always do, outnumber cities. The rejection of the amendment has much to do with lukewarm support in the redest counties and a lot to do with backlash in the bluest counties.

Of course, cities and suburbs deserve credit. A relatively slim victory for abortion opponents in western Kansas left the door open, but abortion rights supporters still had to get through it, and they did.

Wyandotte County, Kansas, home to Kansas City, voted 65 percent for Joseph R. Biden Jr. in 2020, but 74 percent supported abortion rights on Tuesday. Neighboring Johnson County, the state’s most populous county, voted 53 percent for Biden but more than 68 percent for abortion rights.

In fact, what is striking is how similar the painting is everywhere. From bluest counties to redest counties, abortion rights outperformed Mr. Biden and anti-abortion outperformed Mr. Trump.

We won’t know exactly how many people voted, let alone their partisan breakdown or demographics, until the results are fully counted. But we can already say that voter turnout statewide was much higher than expected—nearly as high as the last midterm election.

About 940,000 Kansans voted in the referendum, compared with about 1.05 million in the November 2018 midterm elections, according to a preliminary New York Times estimate. The gap between primary and general election turnout is often much larger than that.

Before Tuesday, the Kansas secretary of state’s office expected turnout to be about 36 percent. But as the vote closed, Secretary of State Scott Schwab told reporters that anecdotal evidence suggested turnout could hit 50 percent, much higher than expected. The New York Times’ estimate of 940,000 means a 49 percent turnout.

Under normal circumstances, the voters expected to appear on Tuesday are mostly Republicans. This is not only because there are significantly more Republicans registered in Kansas than registered Democrats, but because most contested races on the ballot are in the Republican primary, leaving Democrats with little reason to vote — except Oppose constitutional amendments.

Abortion opponents’ strategic decision around the amendment began by choosing to put it on Tuesday’s vote. In an environment with a projected small number of primary voters and a low percentage of Republicans, it seems a reasonable assumption that the amendment is more likely to pass than a general election vote.

The June reversal of Roe v. Wade upended that strategy, turning a potentially unknown vote measure into a nationally reviewed referendum on abortion rights. Many voters may have previously thought the risk was theoretical: If the U.S. Constitution protects the right to abortion, how much does it matter if the Kansas Constitution protects the right? But then the Supreme Court struck down the first part of the equation, and Kansas suddenly became an abortion-prohibited island in Southern and Plains state waters.

Groups on both sides have covered the state with multimillion-dollar ads. Democrats who would have stayed at home, knowing their party had few competitive primaries on the ballot, voted specifically against the amendment. Proponents of abortion rights are plagued by a huge political motive: anger.

On Tuesday, the results were clear.

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