Kansas votes for choice

Eleven months ago, when the prospect – since become the reality – that the US Supreme Court would overturn its precedents on abortion rights was being discussed, I had this to say about the politics of the question:

Ever since Roe, anti-choice legislators (who by now have almost total control of the Republican Party) have been playing a double game, keeping the abortion question alive in the confidence that the supreme court would protect them from any real-world consequences of their plans. As long as Roe stood as good law, abortions would remain available and the silent pro-choice majority of voters would not be roused to action.

… [I]t is too late to change course now; the legislators have to go where the fundamentalists are driving them. The question is whether their carefully-crafted supreme court majority will follow through, and in doing so hand a political gold mine to their opponents.

The court did indeed follow through: a few weeks ago, in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, it ruled that the constitution does not protect reproductive freedom. But until this week the political effects of that decision remained speculative.

Yesterday (Tuesday in the US), voters in one state got to have their say, although it wasn’t the most promising location for pro-choice supporters. Kansas is Republican heartland: it has not supported a Democrat candidate for president since 1964, and voted 57.5% (two-party) for Donald Trump in 2020. So it’s no surprise that Republicans felt confident in moving for a referendum there to repeal the state constitution’s protection for abortion.

Even so, they didn’t want to take any chances. They scheduled the vote to coincide with the primaries rather than November’s general election, meaning a lower and presumably more conservative turnout. And there have been signs that Kansas is improving for the Democrats: Joe Biden carried five counties, and it elected a Democrat governor in 2018, although Republicans control both houses of the legislature.

So observers thought the referendum vote could be close. In fact, it wasn’t close at all: the pro-choice forces scored a huge victory, with a no vote (on latest figures) of 58.8%, a margin of about 160,000 votes.

The result has given Democrats a much-needed morale boost. Three months away from mid-term elections they are still very much underdogs in terms of holding control of the House of Representatives, and at some risk of losing control of the Senate as well. They desperately need to be able to mobilise the pro-choice majority of voters to turn out and support them in November.

Opinion polls suggest that there is movement their way. FiveThirtyEight’s forecast model based on the polls now gives the Democrats a 33% chance of holding the House* – the highest it’s been, and up about ten points in the last month. For the Senate it’s up to a comforting 75%. If the Republicans continue to associate themselves with the extreme anti-choice position, there’s every prospect they will pay an electoral penalty for it.

On the other hand, if voters keep getting the opportunity to decide directly on the question, as in Kansas, they may feel less need to put Democrats in power. There are plenty of other issues, including particularly the state of the economy, that seem to be working in Republicans’ favor; there’s some risk that if efforts to protect abortion rights look like being successful, pro-choice voters will think (perhaps unwisely) that it’s now safe to elect Republicans.

In other words, the politics of the issue are complex and unlikely to get any simpler. But if it were not already clear, Kansas has shown that Republicans are on the wrong side of public opinion. The party’s internal politics prevent them from abandoning their position entirely, but just how they deal with it may have a big impact on their electoral fortunes, in November and beyond.

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* The site’s headline (or “deluxe”) model, which incorporates various other factors, gives them only a 20% chance (although it too shows the upward trend); in 2020 the polls-only (or “lite”) model was noticeably more accurate.

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