Should Kansas’s abortion vote change expectations for the midterms?

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Voters in Kansas on Tuesday overwhelmingly rejected a ballot initiative that would have stripped abortion protections from the state constitution and created room for the state’s Republican-led Legislature to further restrict abortion access.

The vote was the major test of the power of abortion as a political issue since June, when the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dobbs v. Jackson Women's Health Organization overturned the constitutional right to abortion established by Roe v. Wade in 1973. The result in Kansas was a surprise, not just because voters in a deeply red state sided in favor of abortion rights, but also because they did so by such a large margin when polls had anticipated a close race.

Roe’s reversal upended the status quo on abortion politics in place for nearly 50 years. Although it was quickly evident that the majority of the public disagreed with the Supreme Court's ruling, it had been unclear what effects the decision would have at the ballot box. The Kansas vote is a clear win for the pro-abortion-rights side, but there’s significant debate over how much to read into the result when forecasting other key races going into November’s midterm elections.

Why there’s debate

In the eyes of many political commentators, the vote in Kansas is a signal that the U.S. electorate has become incredibly mobilized to protect abortion access in the wake of Roe’s repeal — a trend they say could substantially benefit Democrats as they try to hold onto narrow majorities in both houses of Congress. They argue that, although Democrats still face strong headwinds in the midterms, a surge in enthusiasm from their base — plus an increase in support among independents — could be enough to tip a critical number of close races in their favor.

But skeptics say there are plenty of reasons to doubt that. They say Kansas was unique because abortion rights were literally on the ballot, whereas most of the crucial races in the upcoming midterms will ask voters to choose among individual candidates. In those cases, they argue, voters are likely to consider a long list of other factors in addition to abortion when deciding whom to support. Others say that, though the abortion issue may give Democrats a small boost, it won’t be enough to overcome discontent over inflation, public safety concerns and President Biden’s low approval ratings.

Another group argues that the midterms could be decided by the party that most effectively harnesses the lessons from Kansas. Democrats, they argue, will have to work aggressively to convince voters that their GOP opponents are a genuine threat to abortion access and ensure that the issue stays at the forefront of the news cycle until November. Some conservative commentators argue that Republicans in swing states can counter this narrative by embracing more modest — and less unpopular — limits on abortion access, rather than the near or total bans that the right wing of the party supports.

What’s next

A handful of states will have abortion directly on the ballot in November. Kentucky voters will weigh in on a ballot initiative similar to the one that was rejected in Kansas. A measure in Montana would increase legal burdens on the doctors providing abortions. In California and Vermont, on the other hand, voters will decide whether to add language guaranteeing abortion access to their state constitutions.

Perspectives

The long-expected Republican wave may not come after all

“This result was an earthquake that has rewritten, for now, the conventional wisdom about what may happen this November.” — Daniel Strauss, New Republic

One ballot initiative in a single state is not a measure of where the country stands on abortion

“I’m certain that Democrats are over-reading last night’s results. … One bad result on a confusing amendment in a state that’s relatively moderate on abortion isn’t indicative of how Americans feel about abortion policy.” — Alexandra Desanctis, National Review

If abortion rights were a potent issue in Kansas, they’ll be even more powerful elsewhere

“In the days ahead, pundits will analyze the Kansas results, and try to apply them to other states. We welcome that work. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito said states, not women, should decide this issue. Now Kansas, among the most conservative states in the nation, has answered his call.” — Editorial, Kansas City Star

Republicans have so many advantages, abortion may not impact the final results

“Democrats still face enormous headwinds in November, including sweeping voter dissatisfaction over inflation, low approval ratings for President Joe Biden, and the near unbroken history since the Civil War of the party that holds the White House losing seats in the House of Representatives during a president’s first two years.” — Ronald Brownstein, CNN

Democrats need the right strategy to capitalize on the opportunity

“Abortion is not the only issue that brings people to the polls and influences how they vote. But if party activists make the case that abortion is on the ballot in November, if they boost turnout from pro-choice voters, and if Democratic candidates can achieve even a small measure of the swing seen in Kansas, the 2022 political calculus could be dramatically improved for Biden and for his party.” — John Nichols, The Nation

Voters may weigh abortion very differently when asked to choose actual candidates

“There is good reason to be wary [of] the old maxim of Fleet Street journalism — first simplify, then exaggerate — in some of the post-Kansas analysis. The impact of abortion politics on the mid-term elections remains murky. In most cases, voters will be choosing among candidates, not deciding a sharply framed referendum.” — John F. Harris, Politico

Abortion is just one of several issues where voters will reject GOP extremism

“The ramifications of the Dobbs ruling go far beyond abortion itself. … The far right is also on the wrong side of public opinion on everything from gun mayhem to drug price controls and of course to the attempted coup of January 6, 2021.” — Robert Kuttner, American Prospect

GOP candidates will have a hard time selling a moderate message on abortion

“Will the conservative base, emboldened by the long-sought-after overturning of Roe v. Wade, push candidates to profess support for a federal abortion ban? If so, every Republican candidate will get pushed into a corner on this issue. That was likely before the Kansas primary result, and now it’s both likely and a potentially huge problem for the party.” — Rex Huppke,

USA Today

Abortion won’t dramatically change Democrats’ fortunes, but may help them win a few key races

“The political environment for Democrats has improved since the Dobbs decision. And that might mitigate the landslide midterm losses normally expected from a congressional majority weighed down by negative economic growth and the unprecedented disapproval of the incumbent party’s president at this point in his term.” — Michael Tesler, FiveThirtyEight

Anyone predicting what will happen in the midterms is simply guessing

“It’s also hard to say whether the Kansas result predicts much about November. … It’s fair to say that the abortion issue is more likely to help than hurt Democrats this fall, but anything more than that is just guesswork.” — Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg

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