Resounding abortion rights vote in Kansas may reshuffle midterm environment
“When voters know ... abortion is on the ballot, they show up," a pollster said.
Tuesday night's lopsided result in the Kansas abortion referendum -- which saw the anti-abortion measure defeated some 59-41 in a traditionally red state -- has Democrats and Republicans wondering if the post-Roe fight over the social issue marks a sea change in the midterm landscape or a less dramatic shift in an environment that still favors the GOP.
The proposed amendment, which gave voters a direct choice over whether or not to strip the state constitution's abortion protections, marked the first tangible answer to the question of how June's Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade will influence the electorate.
Turnout in the summertime primary spiked to nearly the same level of the 2018 midterm general election. And with an approximately 18-point win for abortion access advocates in one of the nation's conservative bastions, debate is underway among many over whether that victory could ripple outward.
Democrats who spoke with ABC News insist they have a new lease on life after being pummeled by President Joe Biden's low approval rating, historic inflation, high gas prices, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic and more.
Republicans, meanwhile, insist the wind is still at their backs -- though even some GOP operatives acknowledge the Kansas results indicate that their gains could be curtailed as the party largely embraces a strict anti-abortion agenda.
"If I were a Republican House or Senate candidate or a Republican strategist, I would be panicking right now," said Democratic strategist Jon Reinish. "Voters are furious, and voters are mobilized. Looking at [Tuesday’s] extremely definitive results, I think that this scrambles a lot of conventional wisdom and calculations on the whole midterm landscape this November."
Had the amendment passed, it would have offered the GOP-controlled state legislature a path to restricting or banning abortion, continuing a pattern seen in other conservative areas of the country. Kansas law currently allows most abortions to take place up to 22 weeks in a pregnancy.
However, Tuesday night's results marked a comprehensive win for abortion rights supporters in a state former President Donald Trump won by nearly 15 points just two years ago and where registered Republicans outpace registered Democrats by hundreds of thousands.
In a sign of intense enthusiasm on the issue, the vote against the amendment significantly outran President Joe Biden's showing in Kansas in 2020.
Abortion access supporters won in Shawnee County, home of Topeka, by a 66-34 margin Tuesday. Biden won the county by only 3 points in 2020.
The same trend followed in Kansas' rural expanses. In Hamilton County, for example, abortion opponents only defeated the amendment by about 12 points, whereas Trump beat Biden in the county in 2020 by 65 points.
Democratic operatives cited that as persuasive evidence of an argument they've made since before Roe's demise: Abortion has the power to supercharge turnout in a midterm cycle that was previously expected to be characterized by a depressed Democratic base, given Biden's unpopularity and economic headwinds.
"When voters know that abortion is on the ballot, they show up and they send a resounding message," said Democratic pollster Molly Murphy. "Republicans are on the wrong side of that message, and as voters learn what Republicans' priorities are if they take power, it is incredibly encouraging to see the way voters will respond."
"Voters understand the difference between the parties on abortion, and they are increasingly seeing Republicans take steps to ban it," Murphy said, "which can help create a real choice between the two parties."
Leading Democrats seized on the results Wednesday.
"The voters of Kansas sent a powerful signal that this fall the American people will vote to preserve and protect the rights and refuse to let them be ripped away by politicians," Biden said in remarks before his interagency task force meeting on reproductive health care.
"The people of Kansas spoke yesterday, and they spoke loud and clear. They said this is not a partisan issue," Vice President Kamala Harris added in her own remarks. "The women of America should not be the subject of partisan debate or perspective."
It's still unclear, though, how much voter enthusiasm on that one issue will translate to Democratic support.
Biden's approval ratings have been stuck in the 30s, weakened in part by dissatisfaction among his base that key campaign promises are mired in the narrowly divided Congress, stymied by legal and administrative uncertainty or blocked by the courts.
ABC News polls and other surveys have also shown that economic issues remain top of mind for voters in a cycle that won't feature many more single-issue referendums like the one in Kansas.
On top of those dynamics, some Republican strategists and pollsters cautioned against extrapolating the results of a unique abortion referendum onto the more typical midterm races this fall.
"A difficult-to-pass constitutional amendment ballot issue in a state does not erase two years of mismanagement, higher costs and incredible dysfunction in Washington," said GOP pollster Robert Blizzard. "For those on the left and in the media breathlessly trying to change the political headwinds facing the Democratic Party, they should be reminded the midterm elections will not be an up-or-down [vote] on codifying abortion but instead a referendum on Biden, the economy and dysfunction in D.C."
On top of that, the timing of Tuesday's referendum could offer advice to Republicans running this November on how to message on abortion to avoid the significant backlash seen in Kansas.
Democrats have been pouncing on some states' efforts to outright ban abortion, even in instances of rape and incest -- proposals some Republicans said should be avoided.
"This result does not mean pro-choice candidates are going to win in a rout this November. Other issues are still far more important, and candidates are a bundle of issues. The key for Republican candidates is to back away from a total ban and get in line with public opinion, including conservative opinion, that favors time limits and exceptions for the mother's health," said one GOP strategist.
Still, Republicans conceded they may have to temper their expectations for the fall.
Last year's election results in Virginia, where now-Republican Gov. Glenn Youngkin won by 2 points in a state Biden took by 10 points in 2020, had the GOP boasting that even congressional districts Biden won by 10 points were no longer safe.
But with such a potent and prominent issue giving Democrats late momentum, operatives now say Republicans' target lists may face a crunch even as their chances of flipping the House remain strong.
"There’s no doubt overturning Roe has given Democrats some momentum," said one GOP strategist working on midterm races. "It seems the front-line races this fall won’t be as far down as a lot of folks had hoped. I think realistically we’re back to where D+5 districts are the front-line battles this fall."
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