If Kansas Is a Bellwether, Abortion Rights Could Reshape Electoral Map

After the recent vote in Kansas to retain abortion rights in the state, it looks as though reproductive rights will play a huge role in reshaping the electoral map, over the coming electoral cycles, following the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Opponents of abortion put a referendum to the people of Kansas, essentially asking them to write out of the state constitution a codified right to abortion access. Given Kansas’s politics, the anti-abortion forces had reason to think they would succeed: Fifty-six percent of voters in the state opted for Donald Trump in 2020, and the state has gone Republican in every presidential election bar one since 1940 — the exception being that it voted for LBJ in 1964.

Thirty years ago, Wichita, Kansas, was the epicenter of some of the most extreme anti-abortion activities in the country. Plus, the state is overwhelmingly religious: Two-thirds of Kansans tell pollsters they are absolutely certain God exists, and most of the remainder think it likely God exists. Only 7 percent say they are atheist. Nearly one-third of Kansans describe themselves as Evangelicals, which, given the current contours of U.S. politics, means they are almost certain to be anti-abortion.

Yet, come Election Day, the anti-choice forces were clobbered. Roughly 6 out of 10 voters in Kansas opted to protect abortion rights. More than a dozen counties that had voted for Trump in 2020 voted against writing abortion access out of the state constitution. Although most of the counties were urban and suburban, several deeply conservative rural counties also voted to keep abortion legal in the state.

In the wake of the Kansas vote, The New York Times’s Nate Cohn extrapolated what would happen in all 50 states if abortion access were put to a popular vote. He based his analysis on the political make-up of the Kansas electorate as well as regional and national polling on abortion. Remarkably, the newspaper concluded that the populaces of only between 7 and 10 states — most of them in the Deep South but some in the mountain West — would vote to ban abortion; the vast majority of states, even those that are solidly Republican, with political leaders who have built careers on ever-more-extreme anti-choice positions, would likely vote to retain abortion access.

The analysis found that in Texas, where Gov. Greg Abbott and Attorney General Ken Paxton honed restrictive anti-abortion laws over the past several years (including the notorious law allowing private vigilantes to sue abortion providers and anyone else who helps someone secure an abortion), 52 percent of the voting public supports abortion rights. And in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis recently suspended Tampa’s district attorney for saying that he wouldn’t prosecute abortion cases, a solid 57 percent of the public wants to retain those rights. Meanwhile, in Ohio, which banned abortion after six weeks following the Supreme Court decision, and which was recently in the news after a 10-year-old rape victim in the state had to travel across state lines to get an abortion, 61 percent of voters favor keeping abortion legal. An even higher percentage of voters in Arizona, north of three-quarters of the electorate in some polls — in a state which is now one of the country’s most crucial swing states — support abortion access. Even in Idaho, which has moved toward a near-total ban that will kick in later this month, 51 percent of those polled favor retaining abortion rights.

In fact, of the seven states where the majority of the population is against abortion rights, none have more than 56 percent support for rolling back abortion access, and in most instances, the populace is far more evenly divided. In Oklahoma, where the governor recently signed a ban on almost all abortions from the moment of fertilization — the most restrictive anti-abortion law in the country — only 52 percent support the ban.

The issue of abortion is dramatically showcasing the disconnect between state lawmakers and those they represent. Post-Roe, it now looks like roughly half the state legislatures in the country — those controlled by the GOP and willing to muscle through anti-abortion laws for GOP governors to sign, at speed — will veer far to the right with their abortions bans. This could — and should — have potentially massive political implications, pitting GOP legislators against much of their own voting public.

The Kansas vote provides a glimpse of what a national political coalition that foregrounds abortion access as a key issue could do over the next few years despite extremist legislatures. After all, 55 percent of voters now say that abortion is a very important issue to them when deciding how to vote in the midterms this November, placing it up there with health care and gun violence, though still behind inflation as the single most important issue cited by voters. For women — who lean more heavily Democratic than do men — the issue is even more resonant. More than four out of five Democratic women now say the issue is important to them, which will likely motivate higher numbers to vote in November than might have otherwise been the case in a low-enthusiasm midterm election.

Twenty-six states have initiative or referendum processes, and in 18 of those states, these processes can lead to constitutional amendments being enacted that supersede laws passed by legislators. Several of the states with these processes either have anti-abortion trigger laws (which were designed to kick in if and when Roe was overturned), or have legislatures that are very hostile to abortion rights and are in the process of limiting or abolishing abortion access. Such states include Arizona, Florida, South Dakota, Nebraska, Ohio, and several others.

This year, California voters will vote on an initiative to codify abortion access in the state constitution. By contrast, voters in the conservative state of Kentucky will vote on an amendment banning abortion come November. A number of battleground states, including Michigan, have ongoing fights this election season over abortion rights.

But 2022 is likely only a preview of what is to come over the next few years. In the wake of the Kansas vote, state abortion rights advocates will push to get pro-choice amendments onto ballots in 2023 and 2024. Such amendments would have the potential to drive progressive voters to the polls in huge numbers, and could even turn several states that have been solidly Republican in recent years into swing states come 2024.

The overturning of Roe is, without any qualification, a horrific judicial development. Yet abortion rights advocates are working to harness public support for abortion, and for legislation or referenda to protect abortion access, in the wake of the decision, which could strengthen progressive movements and eventually contribute to undermining the GOP’s grip on power in many statehouses around the country.