Kansas abortion vote tests political energy in post-Roe America

OLATHE, Kan. — In the last days before Kansans decide whether or not to remove abortion rights protections from their state constitutionthe politically competitive suburbs of Kansas City have become hotbeds of activism.

In neighborhoods where street signs often tout high school sports teams, dueling abortion-related messages now dot lawns as well. A cafe known for its chocolates and cheesecake has become a haven for abortion rights advocates and a source of anger for opponents. Signs were stolen, a catholic church was vandalized earlier this month and the tension is palpable on the eve of the first major vote on the abortion issue since the overturning of Roe v. Wade in June.

“I’m really sad that this happened,” Leslie Schmitz, 54, of Olathe said of the abortion access landscape. “And mad. Sad and mad.

There is perhaps no greater motivating factor in modern American politics than anger. And for months, Republican voters enraged by the Biden administration have been explosively energized by this year’s election. The Democrats, meanwhile, faced erosion with their base and significant challenges with independent voters.

But interviews with more than 40 voters in populous Johnson County, Kansas this week show that after Roe’s fall, Republicans no longer have a monopoly on fury – especially in states where the right to abortion is clearly on the ballot and especially in the battlefield suburbs.

“I’m pretty sold on that,” said Chris Price, 46, a political independent who said he voted for Mitt Romney for president in 2012 before backing the Democrats when Donald J. Trump was on the ballot. “Candidates who would support an abortion ban, I would not support at all. Period.”

When asked if abortion rights threats had affected her motivation to run in the midterm elections this fall, Natalie Roberts-Wilner, a Democrat from Merriam, Kansas, added, “Yes. Yes. Yes. Absolutely.”

On Tuesday, the Kansans will vote on a constitutional amendment that, if he passes, could give the Republican-dominated legislature the ability to impose new restrictions on abortion or ban the procedure altogether. Neighboring states including Missouri — which is separated from some competitive Kansas suburbs by State Line Road, a thoroughfare dotted with abortion-related street signs — have already adopted near-total bans.

Voting is open to unaffiliated Kansans as well as supporters. And regardless of the outcome, activists on both sides caution against drawing sweeping national conclusions from an August ballot question, given the complex cross-currents at play.

The wording of the amendment itself has been criticized as confusing, and in a majority-Republican state, Democrats and unaffiliated voters are less accustomed to voting on primary day. On the other hand, a few voters said they would vote no on the amendment but could back Republicans in November — a sign that some who support abortion rights are weighing even more heavily on other political issues in the election. And at the national level, a Washington Post-Schar School Poll released on Friday found that Republicans and abortion opponents were more likely to vote in November.

But there is no doubt that the abortion debate in the state’s most populous county – situated in the Third District of Kansas, one of the most competitive congressional seats – offers the first meaningful national test of how the issue resonates in suburban swing territory.

Like other highly educated moderate areas – from suburban Philadelphia to Orange County, California – the Third District is home to a significant number of center-right voters who, like Mr. Price, were comfortable with Mr. Romney in 2012. But they embraced midterm Democrats in 2018, including Governor Laura Kelly and Representative Sharice Davids, and many backed down from Mr. Trump.

Whether those voters will remain in the Democratic fold this year, with Mr. Trump removed from office, is an open question in American politics. Democrats are betting the outrage over sweeping abortion restrictions will help the party retain at least some of those moderates, despite the extraordinary political headwinds they face.

Republicans insist that anger over inflation – and fear of a recession – will crowd out other concerns for a wide range of voters. (In polls, much more Americans cite inflation or the economy as the biggest problem facing the country rather than abortion.)

Tuesday’s vote will offer a first glimpse of attitudes and energy around abortion, if not a definitive predictor of how those voters will fare in the fall.

“How much of a motivator is that really?” said Dan Sena, a Democratic strategist who guided the 2018 House takeover of abortion rights, adding that there have recently been signs of improvement for Democrats in some suburban neighborhoods. “How does that actually, when it’s all on its own, move women, move portions of the electorate? And that will really give us some insight and an opportunity to get an answer to that.

Limited public polls have shown a close enough so unpredictable race.

“It seems like the ‘Yes’ vote is still in the lead, but it’s shrunk,” said Kansas Republican Party Chairman Mike Kuckelman. Quoting the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that handed control of abortion rights to the states, he continued, “It’s largely because, I think, the Dobbs decision prompted pro-choice forces to come forward.”

The Kansas City Star reported Thursday that there has been an increase, so far, of about 246 percent in in-person votes ahead of the 2018 midterm primary elections. This week, several polling places in moderate and more conservative parts of Johnson County were busy all day, including in torrential rain and in scorching heat. And on Friday, Scott SchwabRepublican Secretary of State predicted that about 36% of Kansas voters would participate in the 2022 primary election, up slightly from the 2020 primary.

His office said the constitutional amendment “increased voter interest in the election.”

“I spoke to many people who said, ‘I haven’t been involved before, but I’m going to vote,’” Mr Kuckelman said.

Other Republicans said the abortion amendment and Roe’s overthrow had not affected their commitment to vote in other races this year — that they had long been very engaged.

“More energy,” said John Morrill, 58, of Overland Park, who supports the amendment. “I was already very energetic.”

On the Olathe site, which attracted more Conservative voters on Thursday, Melissa Moore said she was voting for the amendment because of her strong beliefs against abortion.

“I understand women saying, ‘I need to control my own body,’ but once you have another body in there, it’s their body,” Ms Moore said. But when asked how the intense national focus on abortion affects how she thinks about voting, she replied, “I tend to always be under stress.”

A few other people on Olathe’s early voting site indicated they were voting against the amendment and were inclined to support Democrats this fall. But they spoke in low tones and refused to give their full names, citing concerns about professional backlash, illustrating how difficult the environment has become.

Closer to the Missouri border, patrons of André’s, an upscale Swiss cafe, felt freer to openly voice their opposition to the amendment. The restaurant and the shop controversy stirred up earlier this summer when employees wore “Vote No” stickers or buttons and encouraged customers to vote, but several lunchtime visitors made it clear they shared those views.

“We just want to make sure people have the right to make choices,” said Silvana Botero, 45, who said she and a group of about 20 friends were all voting no and felt more enthusiastic about voting in November as well.

At a nearby polling site, Shelly Schneider, a 66-year-old Republican, was more politically conflicted. Ms Schneider opposed the amendment but planned to support some Republicans in November. Still, she was open to Ms. Kelly, the Democratic governor, especially if the amendment was successful. Approval of the amendment, she acknowledged, could pave the way for potentially far-reaching action by the Legislative Assembly.

“I think Laura Kelly is kind of a hedge against anything that might pass,” she said. “She could bring some common sense there.”

Mitch Smith contributed reporting.

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