It was election night on a hotel ballroom in Overland Park, Kansas, and Ashley Owl didn’t know what he was thinking. For months, she was a public face in the fight to protect abortion rights from a suffrage initiative that would change the state constitution and open the door to severe restrictions, or even a ban. The ballot was doubtful, the opposition was harsh, and she was afraid to trust the promising early returns. Frustrated, I rushed into the conference room, where Mike Gauguin, a friend and colleague, was sitting in front of a computer. “He pointed to the impressive numbers in some large counties as well as the great numbers in some not-too-large counties in the rural areas,” everyone told me. It was already happening. It was a broad coalition with a new message hitting the Right to Lives in Kansas at their own game.
Not everyone who had been in politics for eighteen years dreamed that the pro-choice forces, who called themselves Kansans for Constitutional Freedom, would win by about eighteen points in an election they lost. Republicans in the state legislature, determined to remove an obstacle to stricter abortion regulations, have carefully chosen a date with a historically low turnout, crafted opaque ballot language, and campaigned before general misinformationissuing grim warnings and refusing to tell voters what the legislature would do if the measure was passed. The day before the polls opened, on August 2, Kansas voters received an anonymous text message asking them to “give women a choice” to vote “yes to protect women’s health.” In effect, a yes vote would remove the right to abortion from the state constitution, granting significant power to anti-abortion Republicans in the legislature. Washington Mail message tracking To the Republican Political Action Committee.
Despite the hype, more than five hundred and forty thousand voters cast their ballots to defend current abortion rights, in a state carried by Donald Trump – who appointed three anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court – by nearly fifteen points less than two years ago. There have been more voters than any primary in the state’s history. “I’m still in shock,” was emailed eighteen hours after the Associated Press called the election. The pro-choice campaign focused not strictly on access to abortion 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. Everyone told me, “We talked a lot about abortion, but we talked about it differently.” “We talked about a much broader set of values that a lot of Kansans shared.”
What started small, with a core group of well-known advocates including Planned Parenthood, the Civil Liberties Union, and the Wichita Abortion Clinic called Trust Women, has grown into an alliance of about forty organizations that have spent more than six million dollars and issued tens of thousands of doors. The partners didn’t agree on everything—far from it, everyone said—but they framed the effort as nonpartisan. The campaign reached beyond Democrats to moderate Republicans, especially women, who were pivotal in the Democrats’ takeover of the US House of Representatives, in 2018. Organizers have spoken with rural governors as well, taking time to knock on doors in counties that, in the past, may have was ignored. Everyone told me, “If we want to restore access to abortion in places like the Midwest and the South, we have to do it differently.” “You have to be willing to connect with people who have different opinions than yours.”
Voting forces won against at least eighteen counties on Tuesday. In 2020, Joe Biden won five times. Everyone told me about a woman who called from Pittsburgh — a college town in the Crawford County countryside — and offered to volunteer. The boycott went to Barack Obama in 2008, but Trump faced Hillary Clinton and Biden there in the previous presidential election. The volunteer knocked on six hundred doors, everyone said; The ballot initiative carried the boycott by nearly eleven points. In Seward County, located in the state’s conservative western enclave, the “yes” side wins only four-tenths of a percent. Kensington for Constitutional Freedom received donations from eighty out of hundreds of counties in the state. Everyone said the lesson was to build partnerships with local organizers who know the landscape and can be trusted as messengers to their neighbors and friends.
Strategists are already studying the Kansas playbook, with an eye on the November midterm elections. All and her colleagues spoke with regulators in Kentucky, where voters are considering a similar constitutional amendment that would open the door to stricter restrictions on abortion. Meanwhile, Pete Giangreco, a Chicago-based Democratic strategist who advises candidates across the country, tells me that a client emailed him links to TV ads designed by Kansans for constitutional freedom. In one, a doctor said the amendment “tighten the hands of doctors.” In another report, a retired Protestant minister said he was “replaces religious freedom with government oversight.” In the third novel, the narrator warns of “a slippery slope that could further jeopardize your individual and personal rights.” “These concepts will find their way into democratic messages at all levels,” Giangreco said.
Amanda Littman, co-founder of Run for Something, which supports more than five hundred progressive candidates this year, sees abortion rights as a particularly effective issue. The result in Kansas, she told me, “confirms the advice we’ve given candidates from day one, which is not to 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 is It’s really important to talk about it, especially now.”
On Tuesday evening, while the winners were partying in Overland Park, Susan Humphreys was three hours away, in Wichita, with her friends and fellow Republican lawmakers, grim about the results of the referendum. A few days ago, Humphries, a state representative who opposes abortion, texted after a survey session: “We’re feeling optimistic. I had a lot of good interaction around the corner today.” At the monitoring party, I saw results that “were nowhere near closing,” as she put it, the mood was bad, and the error-finding process was just beginning. When we spoke later, she denounced the “company media-assisted abortion industry” and what she called a “disruption campaign” on the part of the no-vote side. She said 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 will regroup,” she said.
This was also the message from Value Them Both, an anti-abortion coalition that included leaders of the local Catholic Church, notably Kansas City Archbishop Joseph F. of the Catholic bishops. Catholic organizations, led by the diocese, have donated more than four million dollars to the polling effort. Their values both attributed the election loss to “millions of dollars from outside the state” and “the onslaught of disinformation by radical left organizations”. On two trips to Kansas during the campaign, I spoke with many women who had neither misinformation nor reliance on the messages of the “radical left.” They simply wanted to ensure access to abortion – for themselves, their relatives, their friends or unknown people.
Ashley Ull and her allies are already warning that the battle is far from over. In the three decades since abortion opponents staged a Summer of Mercy in Wichita, lying in front of cars to prevent women from getting to clinics, abortion restrictions have doubled, and Republicans now have a supermajority in the state legislature, making them easier to overcome. Veto by Democratic Governor, Laura Kelly, who is seeking re-election this year. “I don’t expect it to end here,” everyone told reporters on Wednesday. “I absolutely believe they will be back in January, if not sooner, and try to impose different laws and restrictions.”